Science Needs To Do More To Earn A Seat At The Public Policy Table

I was reading an article the other day about the emergence in Spain of the previously unknown Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever virus. In 2016 in Spain this virus killed two people – one was bitten by an infected mosquito, the other was a nurse treating him. The article was about the team of epidemiologists trying to find the source of the infection. 
I was interested enough to click through to the scientific paper published by that team. There I found out that the virus is unheard of in continental Europe but endemic in Middle East and North Africa. Afghanistan and Pakistan are considered hot spots with Turkey experiencing growing rate of infection. The virus is spread by insect vectors and infected bodily fluids. And it kills one third of its’ victims.
The team of epidemiologists suggested that possible modes of transmission are infected migratory birds or the livestock trade. But wait a minute.
Infected birds? Birds have been travelling into Europe for centuries without the virus ever recorded on the continent.
Livestock trade? Animals imported into the EU are subject to the world’s strictest quarantine and inspection protocols.
Something else happened in 2016 which could explain the emergence of the virus. That’s the year when thousands of refugees crossed from Turkey into Spain – it was the biggest european movement of people since the Serbian war. Many of them came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So why did the european epidemiological team did not include the migrant movement at least on the list of possibilities which could account for the virus’ spread? Is it because the question of migration is so contentious and the fear of disease so emotionally charged, that the scientists chose to leave the subject out? 
I did a brief literature search and found no scientific reference discussing the risk of human migration causing the spread of vector borne disease. This is an area of great public health concern and as scientists, we must demand a seat at the table to help develop public policy solutions (I am a trained Veterinarian, not an epidemiologist, but I think the basic premise still applies). But we can only earn the opportunity to contribute if our advice is seen as impartial and honest. Surely we can be mature enough to conduct a discussion on disease epidemiology without becoming tangled up in political debates. And if we can’t, the public may legitimately wonder if the scientific advice available is produced in their best interest or only to preserve the status quo.

About Dr Vadim Chelom

Dr Vadim is a house call Veterinarian in Melbourne
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