Global outbreaks like COVID-19 will become more common and increasingly prevalent if countries do not take effective steps to curb zoonotic diseases that pass from animals to humans, a report by the UN has said.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on Monday launched the report – Preventing the next pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.
People look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 and think that such disease outbreaks only happen once in a century, head of scientific assessments at UNEP Maarten Kappelle said.
“But that’s no longer true. If we don’t restore the balance between the natural world and the human one, these outbreaks will become increasingly prevalent, he said.
UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said that as nations seek to build back better after COVID-19, “we need to fully understand the transmission of zoonoses, the threats they pose to human health, and how to minimize the risk of further devastating outbreaks.
“COVID-19 is one of the worst zoonotic diseases, but it is not the first. Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever, and Lassa fever preceded it. In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses, she said.
Zoonotic diseases are infections that jump between animals and humans, some of which have led to severe illnesses and deaths.
The coronavirus outbreak has so far claimed 500,000 lives globally. It originated from a wildlife food market in China’s Wuhan city.
The Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or bird flu in 1996, Nipah virus infection in 1998, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the Swine acute diarrhoea syndrome (SADS) in 2016 all emerged in Guangdong, China, the report’s data said.
She said nations need to invest in ending the over-exploitation of wildlife and other natural resources, farming sustainably, reversing land degradation and protecting ecosystem health.
We were warned that the current pandemic was a matter of if, not when. It is a human failing that we predict but not prepare. Now we must become more proactive to avoid another pandemic and address endemic zoonotic diseases.
This means recognising that human health, animal health and planetary health cannot be separated, and planning our responses accordingly, she said.
The report said that 60 per cent of the 1,400 microbes known to infect humans originated in animals.
It also noted that apart from contagions like COVID-19, neglected zoonotic diseases such as anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, rabies and Japanese encephalitis kill at least two million people every year, mostly in developing countries, which have communities with complex development problems, high dependence on livestock and proximity to wildlife.
Zoonotic diseases have plagued societies since Neolithic times and were responsible for some of history’s deadliest pandemics, including the bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages and the influenza pandemic of the early twentieth century.
UNEP noted that as the world’s population edges towards 8 billion, rampant development is putting humans and animals in increasingly close quarters, making it easier for diseases to vault between species.
Andersen added that growth in humanity and its activity is largely to blame for increasing frequency of zoonotic diseases.
She said meat production has increased by 260 percent in 50 years, agriculture has intensified, infrastructure expanded and resources extracted at the expense of wild spaces. Dams, irrigation, and factory farms are linked to 25 percent of infectious diseases in humans. Travel, transport, and food supply chains have erased borders and distances. Climate change has contributed to the spread of pathogens.
The end result is that people and animals, with the diseases they carry, are closer than ever, she said.
Eric F vre, a professor of veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool and a jointly appointed ILRI researcher said, “as we exploit more marginal areas, we are creating opportunities for transmission. There is an increasing risk of seeing bigger epidemics and, eventually, a pandemic of the COVID-19 type as our footprint on the world expands.
The report also noted that cost of zoonotic epidemics is steep. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that COVID-19 alone will cause the global economy to contract by 3 per cent this year, wiping out USD 9 trillion in productivity through 2021. But even in the two decades before the pandemic, the World Bank estimated that zoonotic diseases had direct costs of more than USD 100 billion.
In order to prevent future outbreaks, countries need a coordinated, science-backed response to emerging zoonotic diseases, says Delia Grace, lead author of the report as well as a veterinary epidemiologist at ILRI and professor of food safety at the UK’s Natural Resources Institute.
UNEP and ILRI are urging governments to embrace an inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary approach called One Health. It calls on states not only to buttress their animal as well as human healthcare systems, but also to address factors – like environmental degradation and increased demand for meat that make it easier for diseases to jump species.
Co-author of the assessment and UNEP’s Chief of Wildlife Doreen Robinson says it’s also important for governments to better understand how zoonotic diseases work. That could help the world avoid another pandemic on the scale of COVID-19.