Tag Archives: Diseases

AI is playing an increasingly important role in diagnostic services in healthcare

Researchers at the University of Bonn have trained software to improve our ability to diagnose rare genetic diseases. The program uses a patient’s portrait photograph and analyzes their facial features — such as characteristically shaped brows, nose, or cheeks — to judge how at risk a certain individual is of these ailments.

Dubbed “GestaltMatcher”, the program has successfully diagnosed known diseases in a trial with a very small number of patients.

Automated diagnosis

“The goal is to detect such diseases at an early stage and initiate appropriate therapy as soon as possible,” says Prof. Dr. Peter Krawitz from the Institute for Genomic Statistics and Bioinformatics (IGSB) at the University Hospital Bonn, corresponding author of the paper.

“We are very happy to finally have a phenotype analysis solution for the ultra-rare cases, which can help clinicians solve challenging cases, and researchers to progress rare disease understanding,” says Aviram Bar-Haim of FDNA Inc. in Boston, USA, co-author of the paper, in a press release. “GestaltMatcher helps the physician make an assessment and complements expert opinion.”

The way we perform diagnosis in healthcare will undoubtedly be revolutionized by AI. And, judging from the results of a new study, that revolution is already upon us.

A large number of very rare diseases are rooted in genetic factors. The same hereditary mutations that encode these diseases, however, ale also expressed phenotypically (in the body’s features) in characteristic ways, for example, in the particular shape of the nose, cheeks, or brows. Obviously, these characteristics vary from one disease to another and can be quite subtle, making them a poor diagnosis element — for human doctors, that is.

AI can however pick up on these subtle features and link them to a known disease. The new software analyzes an individual’s facial features from their profile picture, calculates how similar they are to a known set of characteristics, and uses this to estimate the probability that the person in question bears the genes associated with various conditions. The individual’s clinical symptoms and any available genetic data are also factored into the analysis.

The system is a further development of “DeepGestalt”, which the IGSB team trained with other institutions a few years ago. The team worked to improve its ability to learn using a small sample of patients — and the new program is much better in this regard than its predecessor — which is a key feature for software used to diagnose rare diseases, where sample sizes are very limited. Another key improvement is GestaltMatcher’s ability to consider data from patients who have not yet been diagnosed, allowing it to take into account combinations of features that have not yet been described. This, the team explains, allows it to recognize diseases that were previously unknown, and suggest diagnoses based on data available to it.

The program was trained using 17,560 patient photos, most of which came from digital health company FDNA. Around 5,000 of those photographs were contributed by the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn, along with nine other university sites in Germany and abroad. All in all, these covered 1,115 different rare diseases.

“This wide variation in appearance trained the AI so well that we can now diagnose with relative confidence even with only two patients as our baseline at best, if that’s possible,” Krawitz says.

The data was turned over to the non-profit Association for Genome Diagnostics (AGD), to allow researchers around the world free access to it.

The application is not far off from being available in doctors’ offices in certain countries such as Germany, the team adds. Doctors can simply take portraits of their patients with a smartphone and use the AI to help them in a diagnosis.

China has already published a propaganda book about how it defeated the coronavirus

In China, COVID-19 triggered not only a health and social crisis but also a political one. The Chinese Communist Party has faced scathing criticism for the way it has handled the situation and has suffered an almost-unprecedented amount of questioning, particularly by the country’s youth.

After pushing stories of heroism and leadership and sweeping unpleasant ones under the rug, the CCP has decided this is just not enough. So they published a propaganda book about how Chinese authorities defeated the coronavirus.

The Ministry of Propaganda

No matter that the outbreak is still ongoing, that the virus is just emerging in other parts of the world, and no matter that just days ago, two Chinese health workers published a letter in The Lancet asking for help and saying that medical workers in China are overrun (presumably using the scientific journal as a way to bypass censorship). None of these things matter, the “official story” is already written.

According to the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, the book “draws on the expressions of international in-depth reports, selects relevant materials and organically integrates compilations from more than 2 million words of mainstream media public reports”. Furthermore, it “reflects President Xi Jinping’s public sentiment, mission, strategic vision and outstanding leadership as a great power leader.”

Sounds like what you’d expect from a propaganda ministry, right? China’s Ministry of Propaganda only changed its English name to “Ministry of Publicity”, but its Chinese name remained unchanged. More importantly, so did its mission. The relentless spin machine worked frantically to cover the coronavirus outbreak in a propaganda-woven blanket.

Maybe this part of Xinhua’s comment is even more convincing:

“Under the centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, the Chinese people introduced the emergency mobilization and concerted efforts to start the epidemic prevention[..]. The significant advantages of leadership and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics demonstrate China’s tremendous efforts to actively cooperate with the international community and jointly maintain global and regional public health security.”

There’s no doubt that China’s efforts have been tremendous. We have praised them repeatedly where we felt this was due — as did the World Health Organization and other international health bodies.

But heavy criticism is also due, particularly as China tried to manipulate information and spin the story to its advantage.

Outcry vs manipulation

The first major outcry was when news got out that coronavirus had killed Li Wenliang — a doctor who tried to spread the word about the virus in its initial stages but was silenced by authorities for “making false claims”. Wenliang contracted the virus while working at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was killed by the virus just weeks after Chinese police silenced him, and as word of this got out, it sent an uproar that spread far beyond Wuhan.

His story is hardly singular. Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, two video bloggers who documented their life in Wuhan’s quarantine contradicted the official story published by authorities. The real story, Chen told BBC, is far different from what is happening. Censorship is very strict, and “people’s accounts are being closed down if they share my content”. It wasn’t long before both he and Fang went quiet and haven’t been heard from since.

Beijing has responded to COVID-19 better than it did with previous outbreaks, but its tactics of silencing and detaining critics remain unchanged. The government was slow to disclose information and quick to suppress voices it didn’t approve of. Basic human rights were traded away for the promise of security — but for every story of heroism, there were a dozen stories of pain and struggle. Admiration for front-line doctors and nurses is sincere and deserved — but the stories neglected to mention that many lacked protective gear, and thousands got sick because of this.

“Their sacrifices should be remembered,” wrote a user on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites. “We should make sure that the tragedies won’t happen again, not highlighting ‘Sacrifice is glorious.’”

What the Chinese want to brand as a “people’s war against the disease”, many see as echoes of Mao Zedong’s era, where millions of people are under house arrest, and people are taken into custody by the police for the smallest of problems — sometimes, as little as making a complaint. Images and videos of such public reprimands have widely circulated and often go in direct contradiction to what officials are saying.

Hundreds of thousands of comments have been deleted — potentially millions. Criticism is almost never allowed, and this applies to international outlets.

China expelled WSJ journalists for criticizing it, and in yesterday’s People’s Daily (the largest publication in China, run by the Communist Party) featured an article “How Has America Done in the Face of the Epidemic?”, in which it justifies the decision to silence the journalists.

“They must be made aware that the dignity of the Chinese people must not be compromised, and China’s bottom line must not be touched,” the article reads, before going on a long nationalistic rant.

Chinese leaders know that simply removing a story doesn’t work — you have to replace it with something else. The book, like a million other feel-good stories, aims to fill this gap. All the funny quips from the media about disease surveillance and all the crafting of positive stories from disease-affected areas have one purpose: to push the desired narrative above everything else.

That’s what the CCP wants, but many are not buying it. Millions of people, particularly youth, are waking up to the realization of what it means to live under an authoritarian regime. They see the importance of freedom of speech and freedom in general. Censorship isn’t a distant threat, but a very present reality and that realization is starting to dawn on many in China, especially on social media.

But the facade of an all-powerful and benevolent government is starting to be eroded. China will, of course, overcome the coronavirus outbreak, maybe even sooner rather than later. But the changes it brings may linger far longer, affecting far more than just people’s health.

Europe sees first cases of Zika, as experts warn over climate change effects

Rising temperature brought in by climate heating is causing an increase in infectious diseases across the globe, with Zika being the most recent example. The first cases of the virus were just confirmed in Europe, with three people infected in France.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Since the outbreak started in 2015 in South America, Europe has seen about 2.400 cases of Zika. But all the infections until now were picked up by tourists visiting other countries and then brought back to their home countries. Now, the three people were infected directly in Europe, showing that the disease-carrying mosquito can survive and spread its pathogens in a warming European climate.

According to the European Center for Diseases Prevention and Control (ECDPC), the three cases were found in the French Riviera in August. The patients had symptoms only within a few days from each other, which means they were part of the same transmission cycle.

The ECDPC confirmed they have already recovered, adding that the risk to residents and travelers to the region is low. Nevertheless, global warming and increased travel between continents mean tropical diseases including Zika could easily expand in Europe — and ‘low’ is more than zero.

The findings are “the first time that locally acquired Zika cases were identified, which poses new challenges for the control of these diseases,” Moritz Kraemer, a researcher into infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, told CNN.

While most infected usually don’t develop symptoms, Zika can cause fever, rash or a headache. The disease can be especially risky for pregnant women, as it can cause premature births, miscarriages and birth defects. In Brazil, about 2.000 kids were affected by microcephaly.

Zika is not something new as it was identified around 70 years back in Uganda, specifically in the forest of Zika. Since then, there have been small outbreaks in several areas of the world such as the Pacific Islands. The major complications started when the virus arrived in Brazil and then expanded to other areas of Latin America.

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted typically by the bite of an infected arthropod such as mosquito, tick, or black fly. Or it might be a less familiar species such as an African Tsetse fly or copepod. These arthropods that carry and transmit diseases are known as vectors.

Diseases and climate change

The discovery of Zika in Europe is not an isolated phenomenon. Climate change caused by man-made actions is leading to longer and more frequent heatwaves and rains. These are excellent conditions for insects to thrive, which enables them to spread their habitats. Vector insects live more when there are extended periods of warm weather and also fly into new areas that were previously too cold and reproduce in water deposits left by the rain

Areas with cooler temperatures such as European countries or the United States have been able to keep mosquito-borne diseases. Nevertheless, this is already changing. In the US, biologist Eric Ordecai found that mosquitoes can adapt to a wide range of temperatures and carry different diseases.

A study published in March said one billion people could face “their first exposure” to a host of mosquito-borne diseases by 2080 under extreme global warming. European countries would be the most affected, the study led by Sadie Ryan said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has already altered the distribution of some disease vectors. There is evidence that the geographic range of ticks and mosquitoes that carry disease has changed in response to climate change. Ticks have extended their range north in Sweden and Canada and into higher altitudes in the Czech Republic.

Measles cases have tripled in a year, World Health Organization warns

The number of measles cases worldwide has tripled in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Credit: Flickr

While it can be prevented through a two-dose vaccine, the highly contagious disease has seen a surge in line with a decline in vaccination rates. A total of 364,808 measles cases have so far been reported globally in 2019, up from 129,239 cases last year. Only one in 10 cases are usually reported, so the figure could be even higher

“There have been almost three times as many cases reported to date in 2019 as there were at this same time last year. This follows successive yearly increases since 2016, indicating a concerning and continuing upsurge in the overall measles burden worldwide,” the WHO said, in a statement.

Measles cases have soared around the world, with the African region seeing a 900% jump in cases year-on-year, while cases rose 230 percent in the western Pacific. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Madagascar and Ukraine registered the highest number of cases.

Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, South Sudan, and Thailand have all seen major outbreaks of the disease. The United States has registered 1,164 cases so far this year, compared with 372 for all of 2018 and the highest number on record in a quarter-century.

Meanwhile, in Madagascar, which registered around 127,500 cases during the first half of this year alone, numbers have dropped considerably in recent months following an emergency national vaccination campaign, the WHO said.

Measles, an airborne infection, had actually been eliminated in many countries with advanced healthcare systems. But the so-called anti-vax movement – driven by fraudulent claims linking the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, to a risk of autism in children – has gained traction.

The WHO pointed out that the reasons for people not being vaccinated vary significantly between communities and countries, with a lack of access to quality healthcare or vaccination services hindering some from getting the jabs, while others are led astray by “misinformation about vaccines, or low awareness about the need to vaccinate”. In other words, antivaxxing is also taking its toll.

The measles vaccine is a “safe and highly effective vaccine”, the health agency said, urging “everyone to ensure their measles vaccinations are up to date”.

MRSA originated in humans — but it frequently jumps to other animals and bounces back to us

As if superbugs weren’t scary enough, researchers have recently learned that they can easily jump from humans to animals where they adapt and develop before returning back to humans.

Image credits: University of Helsinki.

Antibiotic resistance has slowly crept into our lives, up to the point where it has become one of the most challenging medical problems of our times. The World Health Organization says we’re not ready to deal with this problem and, already, some pathogens are becoming untreatable. Well, I don’t mean to alarm you, but it gets a bit worse.

MRSA, a classic example of such a pathogen (also called a superbug), can cause serious infections and is resistant to most antibiotic treatments. MRSA, which is short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, can be found anywhere but is most commonly found in healthcare settings, such as hospitals. It managed to develop an impressive resistance to treatment and is now a major source of concern for doctors.

“In the case of MRSA, these bacteria have also spread in hospitals almost world-wide,” says Jukka Corander, professor at the University of Helsinki, who was a member of the international research team that mapped several millennia of the evolution of the staphylococcus bacteria.

Corander and colleagues sequenced whole genomes of this superbug, taking a large sample from different animals as well as humans. They analyzed the DNA changes that helped the bacteria to adapt to new host organisms over thousands of years.

Although animals like cows are still the source of many MRSA infections around the world, it seems to have originated in humans. Judging from their genetic changes, the pathogen was able to infect cows as soon as we domesticated them, bouncing from one species to another.

Remarkably, when it jumps to a new species, it hijacks new genes to help it adapt and stay alive in the long term. Most importantly, some of these genes can give the bacteria resistance towards commonly used antibiotics, eventually putting the ‘super’ into superbugs.

“The capacity for some pathogens to jump into different host-species populations is a major threat to public health and food security,” researchers write in the study. “Staphylococcus aureus is a multi-host bacterial pathogen responsible for important human and livestock diseases.”

Researchers also highlight that it’s more important than ever to find these infections before they get the chance to spread and do massive damage.

“Our observations give emphasis to the importance of detailed epidemiological monitoring, so that strains with the potential to cause epidemics can be discovered as early as possible,” Jukka Corander says.

Here are a few small things we can all do to try and limit antibiotic resistance:

  • don’t take antibiotics unless you really need them (not for a runny nose or a common cold);
  • only use antibiotics when prescribed by the doctor;
  • if you take antibiotics, take the full course — even if you feel better;
  • never share any leftover antibiotics.

The study has been published in Nature.

H7N9 Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) Vaccine Trials Begin

Avian influenza (or bird flu) is a ‘zoonotic infection’ (meaning it is transmitted to humans via animals) caused by viruses that have adapted to affect birds. It primarily affects poultry, such as chicken and ducks. Human infection predominantly occurs via direct contact with infected birds or poultry – their droppings or their contaminated environment – or by handling live or dead birds. The avian influenza virus strains are distinct from human seasonal influenza, and humans have little immune protection as this type of viral infection is relatively uncommon. Clinical presentation of avian influenza in humans includes eye infections (conjunctivitis), flu-like symptoms (e.g., fever, sore throat, cough, muscle aches), or severe respiratory illness (e.g., chest infection).

In the past, the H5N1 strain of influenza virus has been responsible for most human illnesses that have been caused by avian influenza. However, H7N9 now rivals H5N1 as a potential cause of a human pandemic. H7N9 had not been seen in humans until infections were reported in March, 2013, in China. It had previously been isolated to outbreaks in birds in Japan, the Netherlands, and the U.S. Since then, six waves of H7N9 infection have occurred in China, resulting in more than 1,500 cumulative human infections, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most cases of human infection with the avian H7N9 virus reported they had had recent exposure to live poultry or potentially contaminated environments, especially markets where live birds were being sold.

Current evidence suggests this virus has not acquired the ability to regularly transmit from human to human, except for small clusters of reported cases which predominantly involved healthcare workers. While a small proportion of human H7N9 illnesses have been mild, most patients have become seriously ill, developing severe respiratory symptoms that required hospitalization and intensive care, and 32 percent diedH7N9 can infect poultry without causing clinical symptoms, which makes monitoring its spread difficult. Health officials reckon the situation is under control, but this could change quickly given avian influenza’s ability to change rapidly. Experts fear that further genomic mutations will lead to the virus binding to human cells, ultimately leading to increased human-to-human transmission.

There is, currently, no vaccine to protect against H7N9. However, two new clinical trials testing an experimental vaccine to prevent H7N9 infection are now enrolling volunteers across the United States. The studies, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), will test different dosages of the inactivated influenza vaccine candidate (called 2017 H7N9 IIV), as well as different vaccination schedules. The studies also will evaluate whether an adjuvant would be helpful in boosting the immune responses of people receiving the vaccine. The vaccine has been developed by Sanofi Pasteur with support from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, said in a statement:

“As we experience one of the worst seasonal influenza epidemics in recent years, here in the United States, we also must maintain a scientific focus on novel influenza viruses, such as H7N9, that have the potential to cause a pandemic.”

One clinical trial, led by principal investigator, Dr. Lisa A. Jackson, of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, will test the vaccine candidate in various dosages, both with and without the AS03 adjuvant. The second clinical trial will be led by Dr. Kathleen M. Neuzil of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. This trial will test the H7N9 vaccine candidate with AS03 adjuvant in conjunction with a quadrivalent seasonal influenza vaccine. For more information about the two clinical studies, please check out the Questions and Answers.

Miami Beach mosquitoes are carrying Zika, tests confirm

Miami Beach mosquitoes have tested positive for the Zika Virus, Florida state officials announced on Thursday. The findings confirm that the virus is still active in the area.

Thee cases of Zika-carrying mosquito larva have been identified in Miami Beach
Image credits Rob Cruickshank / Flickr.

The carrier mosquito for Zika, Aedes aegypti, is notoriously hard to fight — and very prolific. To get a better understanding of how the virus spread through the aegypti population, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) set up traps and tested the insects in several points of the state — a process which the experts likened to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Still, three samples they tested came out positive for the Zika virus, all collected in a 1.5 square-mile area in Miami Beach where locally acquired cases of Zika have been previously confirmed.

Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that the significance of the findings depends on the point of collection. If the mosquitoes were caught in or around the houses of people with active infections, the results aren’t alarming. But if they were taken from a more distant point, it would be indicative of the virus spreading.

We can’t find out, though — a spokeswoman of the Florida DACS said that they were prevented from disclosing the traps’ location because of state legislature. The department did reveal in a statement that since May it has tested over 2,470 mosquito samples, consisting of more than 40,000 mosquitoes. The three cases announced on Thursday were the first to test positive.

Florida is the only state in the continental US where Zika is active, but its habitat is spreading. The first cases were reported in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood. The outbreak here seems to have subsided, but a new cluster of cases was discovered in Miami Beach on Aug. 18, and the CDC issued an official warning to pregnant women to avoid the area — in most cases, Zika only causes rashes and joint pain, but it’s extremely dangerous if contacted by pregnant women. The virus can cause severe brain defects in fetuses, a condition known as microcephaly. The CDC is tracking more than 1,500 cases of pregnant women who have been infected with Zika and at least 16 babies have been born with birth defects so far.

However, experts say that it’s unlikely Zika will see the same explosive spread in the US as in Latin America or the Caribbean, because of better living conditions — Americans live in less crowded conditions and usually have window screens and air conditioning, which hinder the mosquitoes. In total, there have been 45 confirmed homegrown cases of Zika in Miami-Dade County.

“The good news is the weekly number of new cases isn’t changing much,” Dr. Weaver said. “If we were seeing at first five cases a week, then 10, then 20 and then 100, we’d be very concerned.”

Miami Beach also hasn’t been targeted with the same aerial spraying efforts which have proven effective in Wynwood, partly because of its high buildings and partly because of opposition from residents.

But experts say aerial spraying there is possible, and on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said the C.D.C. had recommended that Miami Beach be sprayed using helicopters. He said the state had made funds available “to immediately conduct aerial spraying in Miami Beach.”

But it was not clear when that might happen. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach city commissioner, said: “No determination has been made. It’s not really practical with all the geography.”

In the meantime, residents should invest in a chicken to sleep with — it might save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

White Nose Bat Syndrome spreads deeper into the U.S. — first case confirmed west of the Rockies

The first case of white nose syndrome, a disease that has wreaked havoc on bat populations in the eastern U.S. has been identified west of the Rockies. The disease’s spread threatens to drastically impact bat populations there, altering ecosystems throughout the country.

Hikers discovered a little brown bat with white nose syndrome on a trail east of Seattle last in mid-March this year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey announced on Tuesday. This marks the first incidence of the deadly fungus west of the Rockies. The ailing bat was taken to an animal shelter, where it died two days later.

Picture of a little brown bat with white nose syndrome, taken in New York state, Oct 2008.
Image credits to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories branch chief David Blehert thinks it’s “surprising and unusual” to find the fungus spread this far west — the closest the syndrome has been identified before was Nebraska, some 1,300 miles from the site.

 “We’ve been dreading this,” said senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity Mollie Matteson in an interview for The Huffington Post. “This is a drastic jump.”

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that there has been a long-range jump of the fungus,” Blehert said.

Caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructan, white nose syndrome can wipe out entire bat colonies. It gets its name from the white fuzzy fungal growths on the noses, wings and ears of affected bats. The devastating disease spreads throughout bodily tissue, disrupting physiological processes and interrupting essential hibernation periods, causing bats to waste away.

It has already caused the deaths of more than 6 million bats in the eastern U.S, in what some describe as the steepest decline or North American wildlife of the past century.

Seven different species of cave hibernating bats in 28 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces have been affected by white nose syndrome since 2006, when the first case was recorded in upstate New York. Two of these species are native to Washington state.

“I wish I could be optimistic, but given what we have seen on the East Coast, it’s hard to,” said Sharlene E. Santana, assistant professor of biology at the University of Washington.

“We knew it was coming [to the West], but we didn’t know it would be so soon,” Matteson said.

Range of white nose syndrome.
Image credits Washington Department of FIsh and Wildlife.

Blehert’s analysis of the Washington bat revealed that the disease was at an advanced stage, suggesting it had been present in the area for quite some time. Genetic sequencing indicates that the animal is a native to the area.

“We don’t know how the fungus got there,” Blehert said.

The fungus could have been transported bat-to-bat — which would have taken an extraordinarily long time. Or, as Blehert suspects, through human travel and trade, one of the largest spreader of infectious diseases. Humans aren’t affected by the fungus but act as carriers and are believed to (unknowingly) play a central part in transporting the disease across the country. Hikers’ and spelunkers’ clothes and gear can transport the fungus, according to the researchers.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009.
Image credits Marvin Moriarty/USFWS, via flirk.

Unfortunately there is no proven method to cure the disease or at least halt its spread.

“We had hope that by the time [white nose syndrome] started to spread to the West, that there were more effective treatments in place,” Matteson said.

Scientists are now looking into the genetic code of the fungus to determine its point of origin and try to set up precautions to halt its spread around the world — the fungus most likely arrived in the U.S. on a human carrier from Asia or Europe where it’s endemic. They’re also looking into creating a vaccine that could give the bats a fighting chance against white nose syndrome.

“For years, we have been saying there needs to be stricter protocol put in place to minimize the chance of a jump like this via human transmission,” Matterson added.

Authorities are now putting abandoned mines and caves under lock-down to protect resident bat colonies. Federal agencies encourage visitors to decontaminate themselves and gear before entering an area with bats, but Matteson argued decontamination should be mandatory.

“We have species that are at risk of going extinct; it’s the least that could be done.”

Bats are an integral part of an ecosystem, and scientists are concerned about the chain reaction their loss might have on plant and animal life, including humans. If the bat population declines, insects would thrive and devastate agricultural areas. Populations of disease-carrying insects would also be left unchecked.

However, there might still be hope. Because bats in the western U.S. tend not to hibernate in large groups, the disease might not spread as widely or quickly from bat to bat. But far less is known in general about how bats hibernate on the West Coast, Matterson said, which means the bats could already be dying.

“As the case in Washington indicates, the disease has already been there for a couple years, and it just got discovered this past month,” she added.

“One of the huge problems with white nose syndrome has been that the [government] response was slow to get off the ground, it was disorganized, a lack of leadership, there wasn’t any decontamination requirement for western public lands, no cave closures.”

“There will be more in the future,” she concluded. “We need to learn our lesson.”

Wildlife officials encourage people who encounter sick or dead bats to report it via an online reporting tool or telephone hotline, 1-800-606-8768.