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Could preserving biodiversity reduce disease?

(Washington DC - July 23, 2008) Biodiversity has long been recognized by EPA as critical for environmental well-being. Humans rely on healthy ecosystems to provide food, clean air, and drinking water. But less understood is the connection between disease and biodiversity (the number and variety of plants and animals found in a geographic region). Recent studies suggest that maintaining biodiversity may protect us against diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile encephalitis, the disease caused by West Nile Virus.

Changing land use and development have altered natural ecosystems greatly in the last 50 years, contributing to a decline in biodiversity. At the same time, there has been a rise in new infectious diseases as well as infectious diseases previously thought to be under control. To find out if there is a connection; EPA has funded three interdisciplinary teams to explore the links between biodiversity and human health.

The grants, totaling $2.25 million, support research programs working to better understand and characterize the mechanisms that link environmental stressors, such as deforestation and climate change, to the loss of biodiversity and the transmission of infections diseases to people. The grants are funded by EPA's Office of the Science Advisor and the Agency's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, run by EPA's Office of Research and Development.

"Biodiversity loss and emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases are both of great concern," said George Gray, EPA Science Advisor and assistant administrator of the Office of Research and Development. "With these grants, we can explore the possible linkages, so that policy-makers can make better decisions on land use and development, ecosystems, and integrated pest managementand possibly reduce or even prevent human disease."

These three grants will bring together ecologists, biologists, public health experts, earth scientists, and social scientists. Together, they will integrate data on ecosystems, human health, and man-made stressors such as deforestation to investigate how environmental factors and people's behaviors contribute to disease transmission. The research will inform and also involve decision-makers to consider how land use and management decisions, as well as decisions on integrated pest management, can protect both human health and the environment.

The grants funded by EPA were awarded to:

  • Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY, $750,000 will investigate how differences in animal community composition affect the risk of Lyme disease transmission in Duchess County, NY.

  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, $749,995 will investigate the relationships between diversity in plant, bird, and mosquito populations and West Nile virus prevalence in urban wetland communities in northern NJ. The research team will also consider how people's attitudes about and behaviors in these wetlands affect their risk of disease transmission.

  • University of California, Los Angeles, CA, $749,296 will investigate the role of migratory birds in West Nile Virus transmission and use earth observations to better understand how climate and anthropogenic changes to the environment might predict risk.


Contact: Melissa Anley-Mills
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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