A group of researchers are taking blood and nose and throat swabs from bighorn sheep–not to see if they have the flu, but to find out if they have a disease which could be transmitted to HUMANS.

A new science called eco-immunology is studying how disease spreads in wildlife, from one animal to another or from animals to humans. In the last 30 years, more than 300 infectious diseases in humans started in animals, including AIDS, Ebola, SARS, Lyme disease, hantavirus, West Nile virus and many others. And every year, there is a new flu virus (which is why we need a flu shot every year), which originates with Asian pigs.

But it’s not just humans that get sick this way–animals spread diseases to EACH OTHER as well. For instance, bighorn sheep are now facing an epidemic of pneumonia, which they caught from domesticated sheep. And bighorns are routinely moved to new areas in the West in order to build up local populations–thus spreading the disease.

Sometimes diseases migrate to both humans AND animals. In 1194, a deadly virus called Hendra began infecting both humans and horses in Australia. Biologists eventually figured out that it started with flying foxes (a type of bat) in the area.

So kill the bats or move them away from human habitation? In the May 29th edition of the New York Times, Jim Robbins quotes wildlife scientist Raina K. Plowright as saying, "Trying to kill or move bats could make thing worse by stressing them." This would cause them to excrete more of the virus in their waste.

Hendra doesn’t seem to affect the bats themselves. Robbins quotes disease ecologist Jonathan H. Epstein as saying, "These bats don’t even break a sweat when they are raging with Nipah virus (a virus related to Hendra), so they are really good at spreading it. But a naïve immune system (like those of humans and horses with respect to Hendra) "goes crazy."

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