ROME – The current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is a tragic reminder of the need to not only monitor public health systems in the world, but also ensure countries are able to monitor and respond to animal health diseases, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently noted.

FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth told ministers of health and agriculture that animal-disease monitoring systems have a critical role to play in preventing human disease threats. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is thought to have started when the virus jumped from infected wildlife to humans.

"Animal health remains one the weakest links in terms of how the world deals with disease risks," Lubroth said during a meeting on the Global Health Security Agenda [GHSA] in Jakarta, Indonesia being attended by human and animal-health authorities and experts from around the world.

Avian influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are other outbreaks affecting humans that are believed to have started in animals.

"Zoonootic diseases that can make the jump from animals to humans are a real concern, but there is much that we can do before the jump occurs and outbreaks take place, causing loss of life and disrupting fragile livelihoods," Lubroth said. "To be more resilient in the face of such risks, countries need the resources to be able to better understand where disease is coming from and to prevent it from ever reaching people in the first place.

"By understanding animal health threats, we have the potential to be ahead of the curve and help prevent human tragedies from happening," he added.

FAO and its partners are advocating the "One Health" approach, which examines the relationship between environmental factors, animal health, and human health and encourages collaboration among human health professionals, veterinary specialists, sociologists, economists and ecologists.

Representatives from 60 countries and international organizations such as FAO, the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) attended the meeting on the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which is an international effort to help prevent, detect and respond to emerging disease threats.