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Origins of major human infectious diseases

Nature volume 447, pages 279283 (17 May 2007) | Download Citation



Many of the major human infectious diseases, including some now confined to humans and absent from animals, are ‘new’ ones that arose only after the origins of agriculture. Where did they come from? Why are they overwhelmingly of Old World origins? Here we show that answers to these questions are different for tropical and temperate diseases; for instance, in the relative importance of domestic animals and wild primates as sources. We identify five intermediate stages through which a pathogen exclusively infecting animals may become transformed into a pathogen exclusively infecting humans. We propose an initiative to resolve disputed origins of major diseases, and a global early warning system to monitor pathogens infecting individuals exposed to wild animals.

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We thank L. Krain for assistance with Supplementary Note S10; M. Antolin, D. Burke, L. Fleisher, E. Holmes, L. Real, A. Rimoin, R. Weiss and M. Woolhouse for comments; and many other colleagues for providing information. This work was supported by an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and Fogarty International Center IRSDA Award (to N.D.W.), a W. W. Smith Foundation award (to N.D.W.), and National Geographic Society awards (to J.D. and N.D.W.).

Author information


  1. Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles 90095-1772, USA

    • Nathan D. Wolfe
  2. Division of Infectious Diseases, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles 90095-1688, USA

    • Claire Panosian Dunavan
  3. Departments of Geography and of Environmental Health Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles 90095-1524, USA

    • Jared Diamond


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Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Nathan D. Wolfe or Jared Diamond.

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