Many of the most important human infectious diseases are caused by parasites or pathogens that spend a substantial portion of their life cycle outside of the human host - in other vertebrate hosts, in vectors or intermediate hosts, or in environmental reservoirs. We might be able to prevent or treat human infection by some of these parasites via vaccination or medicine, such as by vaccinating humans against environmentally-transmitted Tetanus infections. But in many cases, ecological interventions might improve our ability to control the spread of human infectious diseases far beyond levels achieved by classical medical or public health interventions alone. This idea - that ecological interventions can reduce human disease burdens - led to the creation of a large collaborative working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, funded by the Science for Nature and People Program. Our Ecological Levers for Health working group is using a combination of case study syntheses, systematic literature reviews, and mathematical models to understand when and where ecological interventions can both reduce human infectious disease burdens and advance conservation goals. If you have questions or insights relevant to our working group goals, you can email me at hopkins (at) nceas.ucsb.edu.
I am also collaborating with the Upstream Alliance, an international partnership working to reduce burdens of schistosomiasis (a snailborne disease) in school children in Senegal. After the installation of the Diama Dam on the Senegal River, migration of freshwater prawns (snail predators) was blocked, snail populations grew, and the incidence of schistosomiasis increased dramatically. After years of data collection, we're working through analyses to better understand snail ecology and to answer a tantalizing question: can restoring a native snail predator reduce human disease burdens?