Increasing demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural practices, exploitation of wildlife and climate change are some of the causes of the growing trend of viral diseases that pass from animals to humans causing great devastation, COVID-19 is one more example in a long list that includes Ebola, MERS, HIV-AIDS and SARS, among others.
As COVID-19 continues to claim thousands of lives and put the global economy in jeopardy, a new study warns that unless governments take urgent action to prevent new zoonoses in people, humanity will suffer from new pandemics like the current one.
The report, prepared by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), attributes the growing trend of zoonoses in human populations to the degradation of the natural environment either through exploitation of land or wildlife, resource extraction, climate change and other forms of pressure on nature.
COVID-19 is just one more example of the increased propensity for diseases such as West Nile virus, HIV-AIDS, Ebola or MERS, all due to viruses that have passed from animals to people.
Causes of increased zoonoses
Among the factors that lead to this increase in zoonoses in humans, the study authors identify the rise in demand for animal protein, unsustainable agricultural systems, increased use and exploitation of wildlife, and climate change.
The executive director of the UN agency said that science clearly shows that “if we continue to exploit wildlife and destroy ecosystems, we can expect a steady stream of diseases that pass from animals to humans for years to come. ”.
“Pandemics devastate our lives and our economies and, as we have observed in recent months, it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who suffer the most. To avoid future outbreaks we must be more diligent in protecting our natural environment ”, stressed Inger Andersen.
According to the analysis, the experience of Africa, the continent that has suffered and overcome a series of zoonotic epidemics in recent decades, could be an important source of solutions on how to quell possible epidemic outbreaks.
Africa is home to much of the planet's undisturbed rainforests, but it is also experiencing the world's largest population growth, leading to increased contact between people and wild animals.
In this sense, the director of the Livestock Research Institute, Jimmy Smith, believes that African countries "are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks, for example, with approaches based on risks and not on rules."
These approaches have proven more suitable for resource-poor settings, he added.
Damages from zoonoses
Data indicate that some two million people, the majority in low- and middle-income countries, die each year as a result of neglected zoonotic diseases.
In the developing world, these outbreaks can cause severe illness, death and loss of productivity in the livestock sector, a major problem that keeps hundreds of millions of small farmers in poverty.
During the last twenty years, zoonoses have caused economic losses of more than 100 billion dollars, not counting the nine trillion dollars that the COVID-19 pandemic will cost in the next two years, according to the projections of the International Monetary Fund .
The study underscores the need for an interdisciplinary approach that integrates knowledge of public health, animal health, and environmental health, to prevent new pandemics.
To this end, it issues ten practical recommendations for governments:
- To invest in interdisciplinary approaches
- Expand the investigationzoonotic disease scientist
- Improve cost-benefit analysisof interventions, so that they include the full cost of the social impacts of the disease
- Sensitize the population on zoonotic diseases
- Strengthen practices of monitoring and regulation associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems
- Encourage sustainable practices land management and develop alternatives for food security and livelihoods that do not depend on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity
- Improve biosecurityand control, identifying the key factors of emerging diseases in animal husbandry and promoting the management and control measures of zoonotic diseases
- Support sustainable management land and marine environments to enhance the sustainable coexistence of agriculture and wildlife
- Strengthen capacities of health actors in all countries
- Put into practice the interdisciplinary approach to land use and the planning, implementation and monitoring of sustainable development
An ambitious new framework
The United Nations Secretary-General highlighted the study's findings and, in a video message, stressed that it is imperative that countries conserve their natural habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate the food markets, invest in hazard identification technologies and curb illegal wildlife trade.
“We must adopt a new and ambitious framework, with clear goals and means of implementation, to protect and use biodiversity sustainably globally”Said António Guterres.
“This is how we can keep people healthy while protecting the global economy.”, He concluded.