A new decision-making tool created at the University of Guelph could aid in the complicated task of prioritizing responses to zoonotic diseases and outbreaks.
Many diseases can jump from animals to humans, says Jan Sargeant, director of Guelph’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, and a professor in the Department of Population Medicine at U of G’s Ontario Veterinary College.
Zoonotic diseases account for more than 60 per cent of all communicable diseases, and 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, in humans.
Some, such as rabies, are rare but always fatal. Others, such as salmonella, are relatively common but generally don’t cause serious or long-term illness, said Sargeant.
In other cases, media coverage of disease outbreaks can raise public awareness and concern, even in low-risk regions of the world.
“From rabies to Ebola, how do you decide which zoonotic diseases to prioritize?” Sargeant said. “There are not enough resources to prevent and control all of them.”
Currently, different public health organizations, both in Ontario and globally, may use different prioritization criteria.
“There was definitely a research gap in terms of understanding how individuals and organizations prioritize zoonotic diseases,” said Sargeant, former holder of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) chair in applied public health.
She hoped to find ways to improve zoonotic disease responses among experts in agriculture, government, and animal and human health.
Sargeant teamed up with post-doc Victoria Ng, now a senior scientific evaluator at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), to create the new tool involving an Excel spreadsheet program.
Based on a statistical method used in market research, the tool determines how people make choices based on various product attributes.
“In our case, the ‘product’ was zoonotic diseases,” Sargeant said, “and instead of purchasing something, the decision is what to prioritize.”
The tool helps users choose from among competing criteria ranging from disease duration to public health risk to mortality rates.
Prioritizing zoonotic diseases involves many more criteria than in a typical decision-making process, Ng added.
“Our study involved 21 criteria, about four times as many in a typical decision-making process.”
The tool allows users to consider 62 different zoonotic diseases and select which criteria to use, enabling each user to “change the rules,” said Sargeant.
An industry user might wish to look only at diseases in beef cattle, with more preference given to criteria relating to cost and number of animals potentially affected.
A public health policymaker might look at all diseases that could affect human health, with higher preference given to criteria relating to transmission potential, duration and mortality.
The tool weighs the criteria and presents lists based on the respondent’s evaluation, leaving analysis and decisions up to the user.
Its database reflects international research conducted by Ng that involved about 3,000 professionals in multiple human and animal health disciplines as well as members of the general public.
Published in four papers between 2012 and 2015, her research was the first study on prioritizing zoonoses in North America.
The Guelph team considered commercializing the tool, but decided to make it free to download. (Access here; scroll down to “zoonotic disease prioritization tool”)
“What was important to us was ensuring that the people who would benefit from it had access to it, and would be able to use it,” Sargeant said.
Already, it’s caught the attention of the American Veterinary Medical Association and U.S. Department of Agriculture; Ng has been invited to give presentations to both agencies.
Funding was provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)-U of G partnership research program under the emergency management theme.
Other supporters were CIHR, PHAC, Public Health Ontario and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.