Southeast Asia has some of the greatest wildlife biodiversity on Earth and has experienced some of the most rapid deforestation. This results in bringing human settlements and commercial agriculture into close proximity with wildlife. In addition, the illegal and legal wildlife trade is pervasive in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. Bushmeat hunting for sport and food, as well as for trade to other countries, brings people into close contact with a large variety of wildlife and creates a high level of risk to exposure of zoonotic pathogens, especially while handling wounded animals and during the butchering and skinning of carcasses. Malaysia is where Nipah virus was first discovered, a lethal paramyxovirus carried by a fruit bat that is widely hunted for food, sport, and the belief that it confers medicinal benefits. The high degree of contact between people and wildlife makes Malaysia highly vulnerable to zoonotic disease emergence and thus a priority area for initiating wildlife disease surveillance on a national scale.
The emergence of Nipah virus illustrated that when large-scale agricultural operations move into wildlife habitat, zoonotic pathogens can be transmitted to livestock and people. Malaysia has a high degree of animal biodiversity throughout the country, and there are few or no barriers between villagers, their domestic animals, and wildlife. Continued surveillance activities are critical because the diversity of potentially zoonotic pathogens hosted by wildlife is likely to be commensurate with the diversity of wildlife, thus putting Malaysia at higher risk for the next outbreak of a zoonotic disease. PREDICT implementing partner: EcoHealth Alliance
Country Coordinator: Tom Hughes
Tom Hughes received his Bachelor of Science in Development Studies and Natural Resources from the University of East Anglia in 2002. He went on to train and work as a professional arborist, before taking on the role of Expedition Leader in 2004 on a collaborative conservation project with the Malaysian Wildlife Department. Tom began work for EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia in June 2005 on the Nipah virus research project. In 2009 he completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Since 2007 Tom has been coordinating EcoHealth Alliance projects in Malaysia; in 2010; he became the Malaysia PREDICT country coordinator. Tom has also worked for EHA in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Thailand and the Philippines and independently in Australia on a variety of conservation projects. His research interests include the ecology of zoonotic viruses such as Nipah virus or Ebola; zoonotic disease emergence at the human-animal interface; and species and habitat conservation.