Several years ago, a mysterious disease started to appear in sea stars all along the Pacific coast of North America, rapidly and simultaneously decimating well-known species such as the sunflower and ochre stars. Sea stars are keystone predators vital to the health and productivity of intertidal zones. The affliction, known as sea star wasting disease (SSWD), can kill an otherwise healthy sea star in a matter of days, ultimately by causing the animal’s body structure to break down and collapse.
SSWD is one of a number of emergent diseases wreaking havoc on wildlife globally yet generating relatively little public attention and concern. Partly this is because many of the species most severely impacted – including amphibians, reptiles, freshwater mussels and bats – are frequently overlooked despite the essential ecological roles they play. Additionally, while there are clear policy and funding frameworks to address the detection, treatment and prevention of diseases that directly affect people and livestock, little corresponding infrastructure exists for wildlife disease. This is particularly problematic given the speed with which many of these pathogens are spreading.
The growing wildlife disease threat has primarily human origins. The global movement of people and goods, including the wild animal trade (both legal and illegal), facilitates the spread of disease across countries and continents while the climate crisis is allowing diseases to emerge and thrive where they previously could not.
Funding is urgently required to address this growing problem. Needs include critical scientific research on known diseases; the capacity to better predict, detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks; the ability to educate the public on steps people can take to reduce disease spread; and key policy changes to help prevent the movement of disease across borders.
The BAND Foundation has funded projects targeting particular diseases (including SSWD, white-nose syndrome in bats and another deadly fungal pathogen in salamanders) while highlighting the broader threat wildlife disease poses to biodiversity and human well-being. Most recently, we supported PRIMED – Primary Responders in Marine Emergent Diseases – a collaborative monitoring and response network on the Pacific coast.