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Scientists Point to Different Societal Factors That May Continue to Increase the Risk of Zoonotic Disease Emergence

July 27, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU, SCLA

Zoonotic diseases (zoonoses), according to the United Nations (UN) Environment Program, are “illnesses caused by pathogens that spread from animals to people and from people to animals.” Needless to say, the COVID-19 outbreak has raised awareness of zoonoses. However, a report from the UN Environment Program highlights the disease’s prevalence before COVID-19 and focuses on the threat it may pose in the years to come, exacerbated by societal trends.

Some of the most notorious historical pandemics were reportedly zoonotic diseases (the bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages and the influenza pandemic of the 20th century, to name a couple). The presence of zoonotic diseases has extended to contemporary times, with some noteworthy ones including: HIV-AIDS, Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, and West Nile Fever.

The damage caused by different zoonoses takes a huge human and economic toll; the UN Environment Program notes that “neglected endemic zoonoses associated with livestock production cause more than 2 million human deaths a year.” Additionally, in the two decades before COVID-19, the World Bank reportedly estimated that zoonotic diseases triggered direct costs of over $100 billion.

What Factors Have Exacerbated the Risks of Zoonotic Disease Emergence?

A report recently published by the UN Environment Program pointed to seven key factors that are enabling the emergence of zoonotic diseases in the past century:

  • Increasing Demand for Animal Protein – Meat production has increased by 260% in the past fifty years.
  • Unsustainable Agricultural Intensification – Various factors has compelled domestic livestock farmers to keep animals in close proximity to each other, typically in “less than ideal conditions.” The key stat: “Since 1940, agricultural intensification measures such as dams, irrigation projects and factory farms have been associated with more than 25 per cent of all—and more than 50 per cent of zoonotic—infectious diseases that have emerged in humans.”
  • Increased Use and Exploitation of Wildlife – With improved infrastructure in remote areas, the farming of wild animals, which previously would have been impossible, is now being pursued. The report notes that “any significant increase in the farming of wild animals risks ‘recapitulating’ the increases in zoonoses that likely accompanied the first domestication of animals in the Neolithic era, some 12,000 years ago.”
  • Unsustainable Utilization of Natural Resources Accelerated by Urbanization, Land Use Changes, and Extraction Industries – In addition to urbanization enhancing the risk of zoonotic disease spread, land-use change can lead to more human-wildlife contact.
  • Travel and Transportation – The prevalence in international travel can serve to facilitate diseases around the globe faster than in any other era.
  • Changes in Food Supply Chains – As food supply chains lengthened and diversified—specifically in low-and-middle income countries, the report cites various reasons, such as increased risks of cross-contamination and poorly managed “wet” markets, that this can trigger the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
  • Climate Change – In future scenarios, the report projects that many zoonoses “will thrive in a warmer, wetter, more disaster-prone world.”

What Steps Can Be Taken to Counter These Trends?

While societal trends appear to be inadvertently buoying the chances of zoonotic disease spread, the UN Environment Program does set forth ten recommendations that, if adopted by governments, can help neutralize these conditions:

  • “Investing in interdisciplinary approaches, including One Health;
  • Expanding scientific enquiry into zoonotic diseases;
  • Improving cost-benefit analyses of interventions to include full-cost accounting of societal impacts of disease;
  • Raising awareness of zoonotic diseases;
  • Strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems;
  • Incentivizing sustainable land management practices and developing alternatives for food security and livelihoods that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity;
  • Improving biosecurity and control, identifying key drivers of emerging diseases in animal husbandry and encouraging proven management and zoonotic disease control measures;
  • Supporting the sustainable management of landscapes and seascapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife;
  • Strengthening capacities among health stakeholders in all countries; and
  • Operationalizing the One Health approach in land-use and sustainable development planning, implementation and monitoring, among other fields.”

Related Post:
Societal Trends Have—And May Continue to—Heighten Pandemic Risk – March 2020

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