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Genetic analytics used to forecast the spread of rabies

Up until recently, genetic analytics were primarily used to improve carcass yield or disease and weather resistance in livestock. But now scientists have flipped those analytics to forecast what is likely to threaten livestock too. Case in point: predicting rabies in an area of Peru where it currently doesn’t exist. With this important heads-up, farmers can take preventative measures now to prevent what could be catastrophic losses.

An international team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Georgia used genetic analysis of vampire bats and several rabies virus strains to find out how rabies spreads in Peru. Understanding that process was essential since previous efforts to control bat populations and rabies outbreaks failed miserably.

Human fatalities and over $30 million in livestock losses in Peru each year makes rabies a leading public health threat.  

It’s particularly a nasty and dangerous surprise for farmers in areas where rabies in livestock is unheard of – as was the case for this farmer in Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S.

Tracking infected vampire bats in real time is almost impossible to do, logistically speaking. So the scientists hoped that genetic studies of bats and infected livestock could reveal the pattern of disease spread instead.

“First they analyzed the genetic sequences of 264 samples of rabies virus collected from infected livestock all over the country between 1997 and 2012,” according to the report in Science Daily. “To analyze vampire bat genetics, they used tissue samples from 468 bats collected from across Peru between 2008 and 2013.”

Long story short, the scientists discovered that rabies is “most likely carried from one area to another by infected male vampire bats that leave their original colonies upon reaching maturity.” They could then build a forecast based on the historical spread of the disease combined with detailed maps of Peru’s landscape.

Their prediction is that rabies will reach Peru’s Pacific coast by June 2020.

“To confirm their predictions, Streicker and his colleagues collected additional data on livestock deaths from rabies that took place from 2013-2015, after the period when the virus samples used in their genetic analysis were taken,” according to the report.

“This new information indicated that rabies was indeed traveling toward the Pacific coast along the corridors the team identified as the likeliest routes, progressing at a rate of 16 kilometers per year.”

Given this confirmation, farmers and ranchers in Peru can now plan preventative measures to mitigate losses.

But this success also opens the door for similar studies on the spread of other diseases carried by other animals such as deer, rodents, and ticks. Such studies may also be able to predict new diseases or the spread of emerging diseases. In other words, there are many possible uses for genetic studies of this type.

The further good news is that these types of studies can be done in any country and even for worldwide predictions. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

Genetic analytics used to forecast the spread of rabies

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