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Communicating clearly about zoonotic diseases

A group of researchers (which includes WAB-Net Scientific Advisory Board members Dr. Tigga Kingston and Dr. Paul Racey) recently published a perspective piece in the journal Viruses, entitled: ‘Setting the Terms for Zoonotic Diseases: Effective Communication for Research, Conservation, and Public Policy‘. The paper underscores the need for scientists to provide clear and effective communication about zoonotic diseases when publishing research or speaking to the media or general public (especially when discussing the known or suspected host(s) of a given disease), as miscommunication around this topic can negatively affect disease surveillance, public health, and conservation efforts.

As the paper points out, any associations made between certain bat species and zoonoses must be carefully explained and should never be overstated. For example, although some bat species are known reservoirs of zoonotic diseases (e.g. Populations of Pteropus hypomenalus, P. lylei, P. medius, and P. vampyrus have been documented as reservoirs of Nipah virus), other bat species are only suspected reservoirs of zoonoses such as ebolaviruses. Additionally, researchers should be careful not to use ‘bats’ as an umbrella term when discussing zoonotic disease risk. Bats are an incredibly diverse group: the 1400+ species that compose the order Chiroptera possess a vast array of feeding, roosting, and movement ecologies (among others), and certain combinations of these traits may be associated with greater zoonotic spillover risk than others (e.g. the risk posed by a large, multi-species, and highly mobile colony of bats roosting near humans is likely to be much higher than that of a solitary bat with limited movement, roosting in a jungle understory that’s rarely visited by humans). Specifying the associations between zoonotic diseases and particular bat species residing in particular geographies is likely to reduce indiscriminate and global persecution of bats – an unfortunate problem that often results after news stories link bats to an emerging disease.

Abstract: Many of the world’s most pressing issues, such as the emergence of zoonotic diseases, can only be addressed through interdisciplinary research. However, the findings of interdisciplinary research are susceptible to miscommunication among both professional and non-professional audiences due to differences in training, language, experience, and understanding. Such miscommunication contributes to the misunderstanding of key concepts or processes and hinders the development of effective research agendas and public policy. These misunderstandings can also provoke unnecessary fear in the public and have devastating effects for wildlife conservation. For example, inaccurate communication and subsequent misunderstanding of the potential associations between certain bats and zoonoses has led to persecution of diverse bats worldwide and even government calls to cull them. Here, we identify four types of miscommunication driven by the use of terminology regarding bats and the emergence of zoonotic diseases that we have categorized based on their root causes: (1) incorrect or overly broad use of terms; (2) terms that have unstable usage within a discipline, or different usages among disciplines; (3) terms that are used correctly but spark incorrect inferences about biological processes or significance in the audience; (4) incorrect inference drawn from the evidence presented. We illustrate each type of miscommunication with commonly misused or misinterpreted terms, providing a definition, caveats and common misconceptions, and suggest alternatives as appropriate. While we focus on terms specific to bats and disease ecology, we present a more general framework for addressing miscommunication that can be applied to other topics and disciplines to facilitate more effective research, problem-solving, and public policy.

Link to paper

Thumbnail image: “pen and paper” by LucasTheExperience is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0