Deadly zoonotic diseases are popping up in the US. Should doctors be on the alert?

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published February 16, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Viruses that typically infect animals have been detected in humans in some US states.

  • While the individual cases do not appear to be connected, researchers wonder if they are products of similar social and environmental trends.

  • Being digilent about diagnosing and recording rare diseases can help doctors stay on top of any future outbreaks.

Rare diseases have been popping up in different areas of the US, some of which appear to be the result of zoonotic transmission.

This February, health officials in Oregon reportedly confirmed that a resident had contracted a case of human plague. The probable, although unconfirmed, source of the infection was the individual’s pet cat, which also displayed symptoms of the disease, CBS reported.[]

In another case, a man in Alaska died from a zoonotic virus known as the Alaskapox virus (AKPV) in late January. AKPV is related to smallpox, monkeypox, and cowpox and primarily infects animals. The man’s death was the first reported human death from AKPV, according to news reports.[]

For now, the Oregon and Alaska infections don't appear to be spreading throughout their communities. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing so in the future.

James J Giordano, PhD, MPhil, a medical researcher and professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University, says that new appearances and reappearances of zoonotic diseases appear to be a result of three main things: 

1. Social changes like urban and suburban sprawl can cause new movements of humans and animals.

Dr. Giordano explains that with environmental changes like global warming, these societal movements create “disruption of what would ordinarily be the ecosphere of certain diseases within various animal populations.”

“Although some of these diseases ordinarily would not make what's called a zoonotic jump to humans, continued exposure to humans and/or disruption of the actual animal niche in which those diseases are inherent disrupts them and may induce some mutability,” he says.

Risks can be more likely if a person comes into close contact with or eats an infected animal, he adds.

2. Increased surveillance of rare diseases following COVID-19 leads to higher detection rates.

“You begin to look for certain things—not that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but you also increase the tools and the methods of inquiry and examination,” Dr. Giordano says. “So, you're seeing a higher level of assessment and detection, which is then obviously going to give you a higher incidence of revelation.”

3. Increased lab research on how viruses mutate and change, potentially resulting in dangerous pathogens entering society if proper safeguards are not in place.

“It's sort of a double-edged blade if you think about it,” Dr. Giordano says. “You're sharpening the proverbial blade of various microbes that could be problematic to humans to try to determine what types of sharpening would make these things the most potentially harmful.”

He argues that, while risky, this research is essential for understanding biological threats around us and planning how to protect the public from future health threats.

“Like anything else, you must ensure that the necessary controls are in place before, during, and after the research is conducted,” Dr Giordano says. Among other things, this includes maintaining locked and secure laboratories, he adds.

Where doctors come in 

Doctors can play a role in diagnosing and treating rare diseases. They can also stay ahead of any new disease trends by taking notes of “patient zeros.”

Dr. Giordano encourages doctors not to overlook patient symptoms or experiences and to be diligent about recording new or unusual diagnoses, even if they notice this in one patient as opposed to a group.

“One of the things that is often promulgated in medicine is that a single case is nothing more than a single case. I think that needs to be reexamined,” Dr. Giordano says. “It’s going to become very, very important to be able to identify current and future ‘patient zeros.’”

In terms of animal-to-human transmission, he says that viruses can be transmitted through eating, touching, or coming into contact with the fluid of animals (such as a bite or lick from a pet), depending on the exact circumstances surrounding each disease. Encouraging patients to practice proper self and pet hygiene and to cook meat thoroughly before eating may help them stay safe from some diseases—and other germs that thrive in unhygienic environments.

What this means for you

Some zoonotic viruses have been detected in humans in some US states. In addition to encouraging proper hygiene among patients to prevent future transmission, doctors should be aware of the possibility of these diagnoses.

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