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December 5, 2012

How animals spread diseases to us

(Continued)

IOWA CITY —

Rats and mice, of course, have long been associated with disease. Plague-infected fleas on rats spread Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the Black Death. We know today that other species can also transmit this pathogen — including much cuter prairie dogs in the southwestern United States. Mice have recently been implicated in an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in Yosemite National Park that has killed three and sickened at least 10 campers. Mice carry this virus without showing symptoms and spread it to humans via urine and feces.

Livestock and Pets

The domestication of livestock and the taming of animals for pets certainly marked a turning point in human history. Having these animals on hand to provide food and milk, as well as companionship and assistance with hunting, gave humans a more ready food supply and meant less time had to be spent gathering food. However, it also put us in regular contact with germs that these animals carried. Human measles virus infections may have evolved from a similar cattle virus, rinderpest. Cattle can also be a source of tuberculosis in humans, even today. Industrial livestock production means that it's not just a farm family that may be sickened by pathogens from a pig or cow, but potentially hundreds or thousands who consume meat or other products from those animals. Foodborne illnesses are estimated to sicken 76 million people yearly in the United States and kill approximately 5,000. Economic costs from these food-borne illnesses alone are estimated at approximately $77 billion per year

Finally, our smaller domesticated friends can expose us to their own pathogens, including the parasite Toxoplasma gondii in cats (which is particularly dangerous to pregnant women), and they can also bring along unintended visitors and their pathogens into the home in the form of fleas and ticks. Even "pocket pets" such as hamsters and guinea pigs can bring along potentially deadly viruses and infect their owners.

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