Preventing the next pandemic

Clay Curtis
July 8, 2020

The world is seeing a rise in diseases passed from animals to humans like the coronavirus, the United Nations has warned, calling on governments to take active measures to prevent future pandemics.

Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever preceded it.

Other factors driving disease emergence include intense and unsustainable farming and increased wildlife consumption and trade.

About 60 percent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, according to the UNEP, largely due to the increased interaction between humans, animals and the environment. "If we don't restore the balance between the natural and human worlds, these outbreaks will become more frequent".

"To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment".

The report said every year, some two million people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, die from neglected zoonotic diseases. Additionally, the report claims that our failure in doing so may result in the transmission of many more viruses from animals to human beings.

The lead author of the report, Delia Grace, who is a veterinary epidemiologist at ILRI and a professor of food safety at the UK's Natural Resources Institute said to prevent future outbreaks, countries need a coordinated, science-backed response to emerging zoonotic diseases.

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Climate variability is also influencing the numbers and geographic distribution of species like bats, monkeys and rodents, which are reservoirs of zoonotic pathogens. Dams, irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25 per cent of infectious diseases in humans. It has a growing population, leading to more encounters between livestock and wildlife and in turn, the risk of zoonotic diseases.

The report also underscores the importance of addressing "neglected zoonoses" that "are continuously present in affected (mainly impoverished) populations, yet receive much less global attention and funding than emerging zoonotic diseases", such as anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis, rabies, cysticercosis (pig tapeworm), echinococcosis (hydatid disease), Japanese encephalitis, leptospirosis, Q fever, rabies, Lassa fever virus, and trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).

"Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen in recent months, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer the most". The financial loss triggered by the COVID-19 is likely to surpass nine trillion USA dollars in the coming years.

UNEP and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are urging governments to adopt an approach called "One Health", which involves pulling experts in human, animal, environmental health to combat zoonotic disease outbreaks.

In the last two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $US100 billion, not including the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was expected to cost $US9 trillion over the next few years, the United Nations said.

Numerous recommendations put forward in the report focus on addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis, including incentivizing sustainable land management practices and the developments of alternatives for food security and livelihoods "that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity".

Zoonotic diseases are on the rise everywhere on the planet, and African countries - a number of which have successfully managed deadly zoonotic outbreaks - have the potential to leverage this experience to tackle future outbreaks through approaches that incorporate human, animal and environmental health. "They are applying, for example, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings, and they are joining up human, animal, and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives".

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