- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Humans are at increasing risk from the diseases previously confined to the animal world, according to researchers who have documented 38 illnesses that have made that jump in the past 25 years.

That’s not good news amid the spread of bird flu, which public-health officials and scientists fear could mutate to become easily contagious among people.

There are 1,407 pathogens — viruses, bacteria, parasites, protozoa and fungi — that can infect humans, said Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Of those, 58 percent come from animals. Scientists consider 177 of the pathogens to be “emerging” or “re-emerging.”

Most will never cause major epidemics, but scientists fear bird flu could prove an exception. Recent advances in the H5N1 strain’s worldwide march across Asia into Europe and Africa have rekindled fears of a massive contagion.

Mr. Woolhouse and other specialists were presenting their research yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Each year, at least one new pathogen and multiple variations of existing threats infect humans for the first time. That pace appears to be unsustainable in the long run because it would imply that people run the risk of being overrun, Mr. Woolhouse said in papers released ahead of a late-afternoon press conference.

Mr. Woolhouse argues that either many of those diseases and other afflictions will not persist in humans or that there is something peculiar today that allows so many of them to take root in humans.

One explanation may be the recent and wide-scale changes in how people interact with the environment. Those changes have provided more chances for humans to be exposed to new diseases, he said.

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