Geospatial tool tracks disease outbreaks globally

Contagion among wild animals, which has often resulted in human disease outbreaks, now can be tracked via an improved online geospatial tool.

The U.S. Geological Survey unveiled an updated and expanded version of the Global Wildlife Disease News Map Version 2. The tool, developed jointly by USGS and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, monitors wildlife diseases that threaten the health of humans and pets. The map, updated daily, shows pushpins marking news stories of wildlife diseases.

The Web tool taps into the organization's electronic library. It searches for all available information related to various diseases and medical conditions. News reports flow from more than 20 online sources. The tool provides information in several formats, including a blog, desktop widgets, e-mail and Really Simple Syndication feeds. Several organizations voluntarily contribute data to the system.

The map's newest version dates to March. USGS and its partner organizations unveiled the tool's first iteration in December 2007. The new version can display material at many levels, including continent, country, administrative unit, county or place. It also offers more detailed geographic information and expanded filters.

The agency expects users of the online map to include state and federal wildlife managers, animal disease specialists, veterinarians, medical professionals, educators and the other people.

The most important diseases now tracked include West Nile virus, avian influenza, chronic wasting disease and monkey pox.

Users can browse the latest reports by geographic location on 50 diseases and other health conditions, such as pesticide and lead poisoning, and filter data by disease type, affected species, countries and dates.

"People who collect data about wildlife diseases don't currently have an established communication network, which is something we're working to improve," said project leader Josh Dein, a veterinarian at the Madison, Wis.-based USGS National Wildlife Health Center.

'But just seeing what's attracting attention in the news gives us a much better picture of what's out there than we've ever had before," Dein added.

West Nile virus served as one of the catalysts to increase communication and awareness among wildlife, human and domestic-animal health professionals, said Cris Marsh, a librarian who oversees wildlife disease news services at the Wildlife Disease Information Node (WDIN), the online map tool's developer.

WDIN is a five-year collaboration of the university with the National Wildlife Health Center and National Biological Information Infrastructure, both operating agencies of USGS. WDIN resides in the university's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and USGS.

'People in different areas in the Eastern [United States] began to see isolated incidences of dead and dying crows that seemed abnormally high, but nobody knew other areas were experiencing the same thing,' said Marsh.

Disease outbreaks such as West Nile virus need to be addressed quickly because they also affect humans and other mammals. Health professionals recently have expressed increasing concern about the risks posed by the emergence and spread of animal diseases.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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