In Australia, urbanisation is bringing animals and diseases closer to home

This little guy could give you leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, hantavirus infection, or the plague. Image: Getty.

Our world is becoming increasingly urbanised. In 1950, just 30 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This number is now over 50 per cent and rising. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population are expected to be urban dwellers. Although much of this growth will occur in developing regions, northern Australian cities are likely to see significant expansion.

The successful growth of cities will undoubtedly be critical to the economic health of Australia and the surrounding region. However, the increasing size and density of human populations are creating challenges for human health. A report published this week by Australia's national science agency CSIRO, Australia’s Biosecurity Future: Preparing for Future Biological Challenges, highlights the biosecurity risk of urbanisation as cities become hotspots for new and emerging infectious diseases.

Animal hosts

The number of emerging infectious diseases that infect people has more than tripled since the 1940s. Around two-thirds of these are zoonotic, which means that they have spilled over into human populations from animals. The number of emerging diseases is likely to continue to increase, driven by the globalisation of travel and trade, climate change and, of course, urbanisation.

Urbanisation modifies the environment rapidly and permanently, creating irreversible changes in biodiversity. Animal species that can adapt to disturbed or fragmented environments (urban adapters) or thrive when living closely with people (urban exploiters) will prosper in cities. But those that cannot adapt (urban avoiders) may die out. This process contributes to the reduced biodiversity seen in urban environments.

In Australia, urban adaptors include familiar species such as the noisy miner bird and the common brushtail possum; urban exploiters are often invasive species, such as rats and pigeons.

The high prevalence of urban adapters/exploiters in city environments means people may be at risk from the diseases they carry. Possums have already been identified as potential sources of zoonotic bacteria in drinking water in Australia, while rats have been associated with many zoonotic diseases, including leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, the plague and hantavirus infection.

Insects, such as mosquitoes, also differ in their ability to colonise urban environments. Mosquitoes that breed in small amounts of standing water and prefer to feed on humans are often abundant in urban environments. They have been instrumental in the emergence and spread of viruses like dengue and Chikungunya.

A warming climate is predicted to increase the geographic range of some of these urbanised mosquitoes. Growing cities will increase the number of people at risk from the diseases they carry.

Animal-to-human transmission

Why some diseases spill over from animal to human populations while others do not depends on many factors, including the genetic, cellular and behavioural characteristics of the pathogen, animal and human host. But, although scientists are still trying to unravel the complexity of this process, we do know that the frequency of contact between animal and human populations is a significant contributor to the probability that cross-species transmission occurs.

Processes such as deforestation and urbanisation can change the way human and animal populations interact. Land-use changes such as these have been associated with the emergence of many significant zoonotic diseases, including dengue, malaria, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola.

Mosquitos adapt easily to urban environments, preferring to stick close to hubs of human activity where there is plenty to eat. James Gathany/AAP

Although we tend to focus on pathogens that have successfully jumped species to transmit and cause disease in a new host (such as dengue and SARS viruses), most cross-species transmission events go no further than the first infected individual. In these cases, which include hantavirus and rabies virus infection, people are dead-end hosts.

It is not yet clear why some zoonotic pathogens are able to cause sustained human disease, while others are never transmitted between people. We need to unravel the complex interactions between pathogens, their hosts and the environment to begin to predict which diseases carried by animals pose the greatest threat to human health in an increasingly urbanised world.

Reducing the risks

Zoonotic disease outbreaks place significant burdens on public health systems, as well as on local and global economies. Despite the relatively localised scale of the current Ebola outbreak, the World Bank is forecasting costs as high as US$33 billion by the end of 2015, a number approaching the estimated US$40 billion price tag of the SARS epidemic.

Given the extraordinary costs associated with outbreak response and control, it is clear we need to focus on prevention and surveillance to reduce the incidence of emerging infectious diseases in the future.

Despite the challenges of an increasingly urbanised world, the concentration of people in cities also provides opportunities to reduce and control new and emerging infectious diseases. Compared with rural areas, the centralisation of money, power and knowledge can greatly improve surveillance and intervention measures in cities. This includes increasing access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation and urban flood reduction.

Good hygiene practices can decrease the spread of infectious diseases. Brandon Otto/ Flickr, CC BY-NC

City dwellers also often have greater access to mass media than people in many rural areas. This provides a platform for public health campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of behaviours that reduce the risk of acquiring infectious diseases. These include the importance of vaccination, hand-washing, insecticide use and waste management, among others.

Taking steps to improve urban disease surveillance, developing effective prevention measures and initiating appropriate education campaigns will allow us to significantly reduce the impact of emerging infectious diseases.The Conversation

Kurt Zuelke is a director, and Cadhla Firth a research scientist, at the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the national science agency of Australia.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.