The SARS-CoV-2 epidemic is merely the most recent demonstration that our current approach to emerging zoonotic infectious disease is ineffective. SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah and an array of arenavirus infections sporadically spillover into human populations and are often contained only as a result of their poor transmission in human hosts, coupled with intense public health control efforts in the early stages of an emerging epidemic. It is now more apparent than ever that we need a better and more proactive approach. One possibility is to eliminate the threat of spillover before it occurs using vaccines capable of autonomously spreading through wild animal reservoirs. We are now poised to begin developing self-disseminating vaccines targeting a wide range of human pathogens, but important decisions remain about how they can be most effectively designed and used to target pathogens with a high risk of spillover and/or emergence. In this Perspective, we first review the basic epidemiological theory establishing the feasibility and utility of self-disseminating vaccines. We then outline a road map for overcoming remaining technical challenges: identifying high-risk pathogens before they emerge, optimizing vaccine design with an eye to evolution, behaviour and epidemiology, and minimizing the risk of unintended consequences.