Researchers Study Disease Spread Among Animals and Spill Over to Humans
Bank voles carry a form of hantavirus common throughout Europe. Photos by Heikki Henttonen.
A team of researchers led by a University of Arkansas biologist is working to better understand how infectious diseases spread among wildlife, which could help predict and manage spillover infections from animals to humans.
The research, funded by a $2.48 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will focus on Puumala hantavirus infections in bank voles in northern Europe. Puumala virus is present across Europe, but most of the thousands of annual human infections occur in Northern European countries such as Finland. Puumala virus is much less lethal than other hantavirus variants, such as Sin Nombre hantaviruses which is found in North America, and provides a means to better understand these difficult to study infections.
“What we are trying to do is understand why some individual animals are susceptible to infections and some aren’t, and why some are more likely to transmit the virus,” said Kristian Forbes, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator in the study. Researchers from Claremont McKenna College in California, the University of Georgia and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are also working on the project.
Researchers will study how factors such as food availability and the presence of other infections influence disease transmission. Their experiments will be conducted in Finland. Though the study uses bank voles, a small mouse-like wild rodent, Forbes said the researchers will also employ mathematical modeling to broaden the applicability of the findings to other wildlife diseases. “This has real-world applicability,” he said. “We are developing fundamental theory and testing it with voles and hantavirus, which has direct implications for human health.”