The evolution of virus diseases: their emergence, epidemicity, and control

Neal Nathanson, Kathleen A. McGann, John Wilesmith, Ronald C. Desrosiers, Ronald Brookmeyer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


The evolution of virus diseases, both their emergence and disappearance, involves complex interactions between the agent, the host, and the environment. These themes are illustrated by three examples, poliomyelitis of humans, bovine spongiform encephalopathy of cattle, and AIDS of humans. Emergence may be due to evolution of the virus genome, such as probably occurred in parvovirus infection of dogs and human immunodeficiency virus infection of humans. However, emergence of some new viral diseases can be traced to host or environmental factors with no change in the agent. Poliomyelitis, an enteric infection, probably emerged as an epidemic disease due to improvements in personal hygiene and public sanitation which led to a delay in the occurrence of initial infections from the perinatal period (when maternal antibody protected against paralysis) to later childhood when passive immunity had waned. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a common source epidemic which was transmitted through nutritional supplements which became contaminated due to a change in the method of production of bone meal supplements in rendering plants. The reduction or disappearance of virus diseases usually involves human intervention, as exemplified by immunization for smallpox and other virus diseases of humans and animals. Naturally occurring immunity may lead to fadeout of a virus as seen with measles in isolated island populations. Evolution of a virus can also result in waning of a disease as seen with myxomatosis among rabbits in Australia. The evolution of virus diseases is a provocative scientific topic and carries lessons relevant to the control of important diseases of humans, animals, and plants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-20
Number of pages18
JournalVirus Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1993
Externally publishedYes


  • AIDS
  • Bovine spongiform encephalopathy
  • Poliomyelitis
  • Virus disease

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research
  • Virology
  • Infectious Diseases


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