NSF, NIH award Ecology of Infectious Diseases grants

October 04, 2005

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have announced funding for eight projects under the Ecology of Infectious Diseases (EID) Program, multi-year effort now in its the sixth year of funding.

The joint NSF-NIH program supports efforts to create a predictive understanding of the ecological and biological mechanisms that govern relationships among human-induced environmental changes and the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases.

Interdisciplinary projects funded through the EID program will study how large-scale environmental events--such as habitat destruction, biological invasion and pollution--alter the risks of viral, parasitic and bacterial diseases emerging in humans and animals. These studies will allow public-health officials, wildlife managers and farmers to control the spread of diseases among humans, domestic and wild animals, and crops, say EID scientists.

"The role of biological diversity and habitat structure in stabilizing communities of plants, animals and microorganisms has received a great deal of attention from ecologists in recent years," said Sam Scheiner, EID program director at NSF. "As a result, our capacity to analyze and model biocomplexity and ecological dynamics, and to evaluate spatial and temporal aspects of environmental change, have become increasingly sophisticated. However, few of these advances in the ecological sciences have yet contributed to biomedical research or to public health. That's where the joint NSF-NIH EID program comes in."

Over the past 20 years, unprecedented rates of change in non-human biodiversity have coincided with the emergence and re-emergence of numerous infectious diseases around the world. The coincidence of broad-scale environmental changes and the emergence of infectious diseases may point to underlying and predictable ecological relationships. Yet both basic and applied research in infectious disease ecology have been largely piecemeal, said Scheiner.

The potential benefits of the EID program include development of disease transmission theory; improved understanding of unintended health effects of development projects; increased capacity to forecast outbreaks; and improved understanding of how diseases emerge and re-emerge.

Previous research looked at diseases only after they had reached humans, or only at non-human animals, said EID program directors at NSF and NIH. The EID program links those different components to produce a comprehensive understanding of disease transmission.

The need for understanding is being driven by the increased pace of global climate change, society's greater global mobility and the threat of the deliberate release of disease organisms, scientists say. By knowing how natural systems work, public health officials can recognize when an outbreak is unnatural. The recent outbreaks of Lyme disease, West Nile virus and SARS show how little is known about the ecology of infectious diseases, said Scheiner.

This year's EID awards include studies of
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Media Contacts: Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
John Makulowich, NIH, (301) 402-8614, makulowj@od.nih.gov

NSF-PR 05-176

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