Listening to all the Chatter


Ever been to a particularly noisy place like a bar, or tried to listen to a conversation on a train or bus? Or tried to carry on a conversation in a busy restaurant? Unless the background noise is deafening, we can usually filter out virtually all other noise and hear the other person although often it requires significant focus. We learn to filter out the chatter.

Chatter is a term also used to describe someone who talks continuously, or in a fast and informal way, often about subjects that are of little interest to others. But some chatter should be of critical importance to all of us.

Viral chatter refers to information that is in the background of health that is not the predominant focus. Like the background conversations in the restaurant, we don’t pay attention to it; it is simply there. Imagine then the information we would have if we could somehow listen to every conversation that involved a particular topic? While this is not possible in conversations, it is possible when dealing with infectious agents like viruses.

Only when a large amount of data is collected, and the bits and pieces that sifted, what appeared as simply background noise, begins to form a picture. Viral chatter has long been the focus of animal diseases, and constitutes bits and pieces of data from a vast variety of sources, from wildlife biologists to zookeepers, to hunter-gatherer groups. Utilizing the same multivariate data point acquisition should be remarkably helpful in understanding and tracking human viral disease, especially those emerging from tropical regions.

Few people outside of the healthcare industry understand that influenza is a disease of birds, one that mutated to infect a non-avian host. We might imagine that if such a data acquisition process were utilized in early 20th century Africa, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) in chimpanzees might have been recognized before the mutation and crossover to human hosts as HIV. Had the implications of SIV been recognized in the early 1920’s, could the AIDS crisis have been avoided?

Today such zoonotic, or animal diseases, including some of those that have made the news recently, among them Ebola, Dengue, Lassa, Rift Valley Fever, and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, are seldom diagnosed until humans are infected, and after the pathogen has successfully adapted to the human biochemical system. What is becoming clear is that there was significant viral chatter before this pathogen shift, if only we were listening.

Epidemiologists like Dr. Nathan Wolfe are advocating a major paradigm shift in how we monitor viruses in animals before they evolve to infect humans. We know today that, contrary to the conspiracy theories proclaimed since the 1980’s, the origin of HIV lay in the consuming of chimpanzees and other primates infected with SIV. Dr. Wolfe suggests that had we been listening to the viral chatter concerning primates, especially in light of the trade in bush meat, the AIDS picture may look significantly different.

The tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and HIV underscores the critical need for world-wide viral forecasting based on this non-human background chatter. In the modern world of air travel, a virus can move from one end of the planet to the other in less than 48 hours; zoonotic diseases will emerge more rapidly, spread faster, and strike with deadlier force than ever before. It should be universally alarming that a virus can move from Lhasa to Los Angeles, or from Singapore to Toronto in less than a day. Less time than it takes for the first symptoms to appear.

Listening to the viral chatter of animals, especially in remote areas where humans are making new incursions, will give health scientists a heads-up on viruses before they mutate to infect people. Through the trade in bush meat and the moving of domesticated species into new habitats, both humans and their domesticated food animals are at risk of infection by novel viruses. The viral chatter may help health scientists uncover trends in animal diseases (especially among primates) that could eventually jump to humans (or domesticated animals), thus preventing possible pandemics.

Traditionally, health researchers had to wait until human infections occurred before ascertaining the possible consequences of the disease, rather than to try to understand the pathogen’s host species. Paying more attention to the viral chatter in other species that live alongside humans, especially those that had been geographically separated from humans, will greatly assist researchers in preventing or greatly reducing what may be the next pandemic. Viral forecasting, made possible by listening to the viral chatter in non-human populations, is far better at monitoring viruses that have the potential to jump to humans. When it comes to stopping or preventing pandemic disease, we need to identify potential agents early, before they jump to humans, and assess the potential for spread (R 0), thereby stopping the deadly agents before they can become pandemics.

HIV was able to spread worldwide because science and medicine were, for the most part, slow to recognize it as a disease. Others used politics to deny the virus even existed, while others blamed the victims for catching the virus. In the end, whether it was the slow onset of symptoms, scientific ignorance, or political arrogance, HIV is today a worldwide pandemic. Thankfully medical research has progressed to the point of livability of HIV and AIDS, but the disease should be a wakeup call. There are many viruses and pathogens making noise in non-human populations. We need to start listening.

For more information on Dr. Nathan Wolfe, check out his talk on TED here:

Books by Dr. Wolfe include The Viral Storm




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