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Farm animals are more than a means of livelihood: They can serve
as models for understanding how infectious diseases are transmitted
in human populations.
This novel idea was presented in a paper published last month in
the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.
Dr. Renata Ivanek, assistant professor of epidemiology at the
Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences, was one of the contributing authors of the
paper. (Other study participants, including main author Dr.
Cristina Lanzas, Patrick Ayscue and Dr. Yrjo T. Grohn, were from
Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.)
According to the study, which was funded by the National
Institutes of Health, understanding the complex processes that
underlie the transmission of infectious diseases in human
populations is critical for designing effective intervention
strategies for these diseases. Mathematical models of infectious
disease transmission have played a major role in understanding
"Mathematical models provide a platform where the various
factors that influence the transmission of infectious diseases [for
example, strain or dose of pathogen] can be tested in a
cost-effective manner with minimal effort," said Ivanek. "Designing
experiments to test these diverse factors would be very
Further, the predictions generated by these mathematical models
can be used to forecast "the long-term epidemiological and economic
consequences of intervention strategies," the authors state.
However, for these predictions to be considered accurate, the
models have to be validated or verified against data acquired in
"It is difficult to validate theoretical predictions of
infectious disease transmission in human populations because there
is very little empirical data in this regard," Ivanek explained.
"But farm animals can help fill this gap."
The authors offer several reasons for why farm animal
populations can serve as a good model for disease transmission in
human populations. These include similarities between farm animal
and human populations with regard to disease mechanisms, immune
systems and factors that contribute to disease outbreak (for
example, crowding, close contact and poor hygiene).
The study also provides examples of how farm animal models have
been used in infectious disease research. The authors discuss how
Marek's disease in poultry has been used to study factors that
cause pathogens to become increasingly virulent in vaccinated
populations and how swine populations harboring influenza viruses
have been used to study how these viruses emerge and are
transmitted across species.
Further, Ivanek explained that empirical data for one of her
current projects, funded by a $1.4 million National Science
Foundation grant, will be obtained from a farm animal model. The
project, which addresses the transmission mechanism of infectious
diseases caused by pathogens that are intermittently shed and
persist in the environment, will use E. coli transmission among
cattle as a model system.
"We will use empirical data from this system to validate the
predictions of theoretical models, which will be generated
simultaneously," said Ivanek.
Ivanek's project underlines one of the main points of the
review: the importance of combining mathematical and empirical
approaches to investigating disease.
The review findings suggest that investigating the dynamics of
disease transmission within the herd environment is a "one-health"
approach (that is, addressing both animal and human health) for
developing novel treatments and better diagnostic and predictive
tools for infectious diseases.
Angela G. Clendenin
Director, Communications & Public Relations
Ofc - (979) 862-2675
Cell - (979) 739-5718
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843
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