16 June 2017

Critical gaps in our knowledge of where infectious diseases occur

Global health

Today Scientists have called for action. The scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution have published a joint statement from scientists at Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of Copenhagen and North Carolina State University. The scientists call attention to a serious lack of data on the worldwide distribution of disease-causing organisms. Without this knowledge, predicting where and when the next disease outbreak will emerge is hardly possible. Macroecologists hold the expertise to create the needed data network and close the knowledge gaps.

We lack fundamental knowledge about the global distribution of a wide range of disease-causing species from viruses and bacteria to parasites. The joint warning, published today in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, comes from scientists in Denmark and the US. Lead-author Assistant professor Anna-Sofie Stensgaard from Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, explains,

- Today, we know less about where disease-causing organisms occur, than the global distribution of most mammals, birds and even ants. Without this basic knowledge it is very hard to predict if, for instance, certain bacteria or parasites, transmitted via mosquitoes or other bloodsucking insects, are likely to spread or not, and what measures we must take in order to prevent this.

Practically no knowledge

Scientists have registered more than 2100 organisms worldwide known to make people sick. Of these, 355 are defined as clinical important and collectively kill almost 10 million people each year, mainly in the tropics. This disproportion has great implications for global health and economy. Yet, we only have detailed knowledge about less than 17 of these diseases’ distribution.

"We are really still in the dark, ignorant about the species most likely to do civilization in

Co-lead author Professor Rob Dunn

North Carolina State University

For most disease-causing viruses, bacteria and parasites we know only which countries they can be found in, not their prevalence, nor how they are changing through time. And even these terribly coarse data are often privately held. We are really still in the dark, ignorant about the species most likely to do civilization in, says co-lead author Professor Rob Dunn from North Carolina State University.

The three maps illustrate our inadequate knowledge of disease-causing organisms like viruses, bacteria and fungi. Despite scientists ability to produce detailed high resolution maps of the distribution of birds globally (top-figure), our knowledge on the distribution of organisms known to make people sick are - in most cases - only available at country scale (middle-figure), and incomplete at regional scales (bottom-figure).
(Credit: Top-figure: C. Rahbek et al. (2012) / middle and bottom-figures: based on data from Wardeh et al. (2015)) Download figure for press.

Recognition is first step to close the gaps

Networks, similar to the one the scientists call for, already exists for other organisms. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), for instance, is a platform to collect and make huge amounts of biodiversity data accessible. GBIF includes 700 million records of animals, fungi and plants shared by 977 institutions worldwide.

- It is possible to close the knowledge gaps, because we hold the expertise to set up the needed network of databases. What we lack is recognition of the threat we face until it is established. I am sure, when people realise this, that time, money and collaboration among experts from crosscutting disciplines will not be hard to get. But until then, we cannot foresee how disease-spreading organisms move, interact and emerge due to climate changes, intensified agriculture or urbanization, says senior-author Professor Carsten Rahbek.


Assistant Professor Anna-Sofie Stensgaard
Phone: (+45) 26 29 76 50

Professor Rob Dunn
Phone: (+1) 919 632 1216

Professor Carsten Rahbek
Phone: (+45) 40 96 39 67