ROME – Billions of dollars could be saved if governments enhanced the prevention and control of high-impact animal diseases, some of which pose a direct threat to human health, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (F.A.O.) said on July 26. Many other animal diseases have a negative impact on people's livelihoods. Pandemic influenza viruses H5N1 and H1N1, foot-and-mouth disease, Rift Valley fever and rabies are among the more recent disease outbreaks.

Posing new challenges to animal disease prevention and control are land use, ecological dynamics (including climate change) and expanding trade and trade routes, the U.N. agency warned.

Such emerging threats are also related to increased urbanization and strongly growing urban demand for meat, milk and eggs. A rapid increase and intensification in poultry production in East Asia translated into a five-fold increase in duck meat output between 1985 and 2000. In 2008, more than 21 billion animals were produced for food globally, a figure expected to rise by 50% by 2020.

"We are expecting the costs to human, animal and plant health of these pathogens, and their overall economic costs, to rise substantially over the next decades" said Juan Lubroth, F.A.O.'s chief veterinary officer.

In the United Kingdom, a 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was estimated to have cost the government and private sector between $25 and $30 billion. The 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (S.A.R.S.) outbreak cost China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada between $30 and $50 billion.

High-impact trans-boundary animal diseases in developing countries pose a direct threat to the food security, nutrition and income of rural communities that are dependent on livestock. This adds to the difficulties of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, including reducing hunger, poverty, child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability.

The collective influenza virus gene pool currently circulating in humans, poultry, pigs and other animals is becoming more diverse with new strains of the virus across different hosts becoming increasingly common. Given the increase in urban food waste, an increasing number of scavenging animals, such as dogs, are roaming in urban spaces and human habitats. Certain wild species of animals are also thriving in urban environments posing new threats to human health, such as rabies.

As a result of human population increases, people are farming animals in locations closer to natural habitats, thereby increasing the risk of disease transmission between domestic animals and wildlife and thus affecting biodiversity and conservation efforts.

"This is not science fiction," Lubroth said. "The threats are very real. Deadly and economically devastating livestock epidemics have existed throughout history, but there is no doubt more pathogens are emerging – and spreading. The good news is, with the right policies, they can be better detected and contained."

F.A.O., in partnership with the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Health Organization, has adopted a One Health strategy to more effectively detect and combat these new pathogens. Drawing upon the agency's experience in past animal-health emergencies, the One Health initiative aims to make a key contribution to the global response to disease outbreaks, implementation of effective prevention and containment strategies and management of risks of disease emergence, including improving knowledge of disease-emergence drivers in livestock production and in associated ecosystems.