A University of Maryland researcher co-authored a study suggesting conservation efforts can result in more infectious diseases, while urbanization was associated with less.
The study, co-authored by geographical sciences post-doctoral research associate Do-Hyung Kim, analyzed infectious diseases in 60 different countries and their potential causes, from environmental to economic factors. It concluded conservation efforts that preserve natural biodiversity and increase forestation also increase the burden of infectious disease and concluded both urbanization and economic development could help reduce these sicknesses.
Sara Lombardi, a university biology lecturer, said the influence of biodiversity on infectious diseases is more complex than it may seem. While this study showed more forestation was linked to higher disease burden, human health is influenced by much more than just diseases, she said.
For example, biodiversity is also highly related to improvements in air and water quality, she said.
Urban populations have more access to sanitation and health care, the study said, which can help people avoid catching and spreading infectious diseases. Less urbanized countries with greater biodiversity tend to have less access to water and sewage treatment facilities than more developed countries do, Lombardi said.
"This does not mean that if we go and cut trees and have [a] more urban setting in Maryland that we're going to have less disease," Lombardi said.
Lombardi said rather than interpreting the study's results as a need to reduce conservation efforts, it should be an example of how proper urban planning can improve human health. Smart urban planning can give people access to proper water and sewage treatment while still preserving biodiversity, she said.
Although the study showed urbanization was associated with lower disease burdens, this may not have been solely caused by decreased biodiversity. Lombardi said ecosystems with more biodiversity keep animals in check that transmit diseases to humans.
"Having a conserved natural system is actually good for tick management," Lombardi said. "It's in disturbed habitats that we have too many ticks because we don't have wolves that keep the deer population in check, so we have lots of ticks on the deer and now we have a bigger problem."
Maya Spaur, co-director of the Student Government Association's Student Sustainability Committee, said it's possible to maintain a balance between urbanization and biodiversity.
Urbanization is not the only way for citizens of biodiverse countries to improve their health, the senior environmental science and technology and government and politics major said. She proposed increasing efforts to educate those in biodiverse areas about how they can avoid and treat infectious diseases.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using insecticide-treated mosquito nets to reduce the threat of malaria.
"How do we balance out conservation and urbanization?" Spaur asked. "I think we can do both, and you don't have to achieve one at the expense of the other."