What can ecologists learn from epidemiology
The fields of epidemiology and disease ecology have a great deal in common – essentially they are both the study of the abundance and distribution of disease – but their practice and outcomes can be subtly different. For example, an epidemiologist’s traditional approach to the study of emerging zoonotic disease would likely commence by identifying human cases of the disease, and then analyzing and exploring associated risk factors. In contrast, a disease ecologist might first identify ecological factors likely to be important in altering wildlife reservoir ecology and then determine consequent variation in disease risk. Advantages and pitfalls can be attributed to both disciplines. I will discuss how epidemiology and public health have altered my perceptions of disease ecology approaches, using case studies involving the relationships between biodiversity and the (possible) emergence of zoonotic diseases.
I will suggest that it behooves disease ecologists to more fully appreciate human ecology. For example, to what extend does disease risk actually influence disease incidence in human populations? And why is human behavior often neglected in ecological studies of emerging infectious diseases? Furthermore, disease ecologists should beware the ecologic fallacy – when data from larger aggregates are used to infer the properties of the elements of those aggregates. Simultaneously, epidemiologists may benefit from community ecology approaches that highlight heterogeneous interactions among wildlife species – in terms of reservoir competence and local variation in abundance. By integrating both fields, ‘eco-epidemiology’ can aid investigation and control of emerging zoonotic diseases.