Curb climate change, protect environment to prevent future pandemics, countries told

Land degradation, wildlife exploitation, intensive farming and climate change are driving the rise in diseases that, like the novel coronavirus, are passed from animals to humans, United Nations experts said on Monday.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) released the report in which they jointly identified seven trends responsible for such diseases, known as zoonotic, calling on governments to take steps to stop future pandemics.

These are: rising demand for animal protein, extraction of natural resources and urbanization, intensive and unsustainable farming, exploitation of wildlife, increased travel and transportation, food supply changes and climate change, the report said.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

“Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen over the past months, it is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most.

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

Human interaction a driving force for transfer

About 60 per cent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, she said, largely due to the increased interaction between humans, animals and the environment.

The novel coronavirus, which is most likely to have originated in bats, has infected more than 11 million people and killed over half a million people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But it is just one in a growing number of diseases — including Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever, Zika, SARS and Rift Valley fever — that have jumped from animal hosts into the human population in recent years, said the report.

Zoonotic diseases blamed for 2M deaths annually

Around two million people, mostly in developing nations, die from neglected zoonotic diseases every year.

These outbreaks not only cause severe illness and deaths, but also result in major economic losses for some of the world’s poorest.

In the last two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion US.

This does not include the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion US over the next few years, said the report.

An infection control worker adjusts a face shield designed for health-care providers treating patients with the Ebola virus during a training simulation in Ottawa in this photo from Oct. 31, 2014. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Most efforts to control zoonotic diseases have been reactive rather than proactive, say experts.

They want governments to invest in public health, farm sustainability, end over-exploitation of wildlife and reduce climate change.

Africa — home to a large portion of the world’s remaining intact rainforests as well as fast-growing human population — is at high risk of the intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and increasing the emergence of new ones, but it could also provide solutions, said ILRI director general Jimmy Smith.

“With their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks.”

Identifying outbreaks in animals first

Smith said some African nations had adopted a “One Health” approach — uniting public health, veterinary and environmental expertise that can help to identify and treat outbreaks in animals before they pass to humans.

The experts urged governments to provide incentives for sustainable land use and animal husbandry and to develop strategies for producing food that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity.

Monday is World Zoonoses Day, which commemorates the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur, who successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies, a zoonotic disease, on July 6 1885. 

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