Are you prepared for the next pandemic?

Adeze Ojukwu

The fear of another pandemic is already swirling.

But the mere thought of a recurrence of such a monumental health catastrophe is simply noxious.

Who wants another lockdown, with all its social constrictions,  stringent health rules, funeral chimes and economic woes?

Certainly no one will desire to witness such a gory experience, twice in a lifetime.

But this is the stark reality  facing humanity. Nevertheless the huge possibility of another health crisis is irrefutable.

Environmentalists and  scientists have proffered several reasons for this tragic forecast.

No doubt, years of massive destruction of the ecosystem by humans is a major factor.

Other complexities, arising from the global industrial and technological advancements, pose additional risks, that cannot be ignored.

Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP), Inger Andersen said ‘science has clearly shown 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,’

‘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,’ he advised.

The authors of  ‘A One Health Approach,’ believe that the optimal method to tackle such infestations, lies in synergising public health, veterinary and environmental expertise.

Practical steps  to avert future zoonotic outbreaks, according these experts include investing in interdisciplinary approaches, expanding scientific enquiry into zoonotic diseases and improving cost-benefit analyses of interventions.

Others are raising awareness of zoonotic diseases, strengthening monitoring and regulation practices, including food systems and incentivizing sustainable land management practices and developing alternatives for food security and livelihoods that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity.

Primarily, ‘a zoonotic disease or ‘zoonosis’ is a disease that has passed into the human population from an animal source. COVID-19, which has already caused more than half a million deaths around the world, most likely originated in bats. But COVID-19 is only the latest in a growing number of diseases, including Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever and Rift Valley fever, whose spread from animal hosts into human populations has been intensified by anthropogenic pressures.’

‘Every year, some two million people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, die from neglected zoonotic diseases. The same outbreaks can cause severe illness, deaths, and productivity losses among livestock populations in the developing world, a major problem that keeps hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers in severe poverty. In the last two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion, not including the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion over the next few years.’

Zoonotic diseases, also known as zoonoses, include ‘HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, West Nile virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and  the novel coronavirus.’

Animals that are more likely to harbour pathogens,  include rodents, bats, and non-human primates, as well as economically important livestock notably pigs, cows and chickens.

‘The last 100 years has seen massive increases in human populations, resulting in massive decreases in natural environments. These two parallel trends are critical parts of the complex chain of events that has triggered a rise in the emergence and spread of new zoonoses,  particularly in low- and middle-income countries.’

The cumulative impact of these  threats both to man and the planet, can be compared to the mythological Sword of Damocles.

Indeed the surfacing of a new harbinger of death and its unpredictable timing, should really concern the authorities and individuals too.

For instance, how can a nation, such as Nigeria, with its motley financial difficulties, be action-ready for such a calamity again.

When will the next pandemic start? How can I prepare for it? Is it preventable?

These are some of the dreary questions agitating the minds of people over the outbreak of another deadly disease.

A random survey showed that not a few health practitioners shied away from the subject matter,  refraining from discussing it.

Since the emergence of coronavirus, the world has not known peace.

It has been a long season of anomy, with uncountable deaths, disease, sorrow and economic hardship, for most people, as the health storm, wrecked lives and livelihoods across every region.

The financial and humanitarian crises is unprecedented and seemingly unrelentless.

No doubt, some hope was ushered in by the development of a vaccine.

However, the resurgence of a second and third wave of COVID-19, as well as the outbreak of a new mutant strain have unleashed fresh crises.

Vaccination is also no guarantee of  eradication of COVID-19 virus.

This terse verdict was handed down, just few hours to the new year, to prepare the world for another zoological nightmare.

Glad to note that the alarm was sounded by those that should know, the World Health Organization(WHO) officials.

In the final COVID-19 press conference, few weeks back, the agency’s senior personnel warned that the virus is ‘not necessarily the big one’ and that there is a real chance of another, more serious pandemic spreading across the world.

WHO Chief, Dr. Tedros  Ghebreyesus said the ‘UN is learning new things about the virus every day, including the ability of new variants to spread, make people sick, or have a potential impact on available tests, treatments or vaccines.’

Dr. Tedros singled out ‘work taking place in the United Kingdom and South Africa, where scientists are carrying out epidemiologic and laboratory studies, which will guide the agency’s next steps.’

Meanwhile, Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO Emergencies Program, said ‘the next pandemic may be more severe. We need get our act together”, because we live on a fragile planet, and in an increasingly complex society.’

‘Let’s honour those we’ve lost by getting better at what we do,’  Dr. Ryan added.

According to Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19, some of the countries that have coped better with COVID-19 have not necessarily been those with the highest incomes, but those that have lived through other infectious disease outbreaks.

‘Those countries have used the muscle memory of traumatic events to kick their systems into gear and act to comprehensively tackle the virus,’ she explained.

Dr.  Kerkhove joined Dr. Ryan in calling ‘for the world to be better prepared for the next health crisis, with well-trained health workers able to take full advantage of innovative technology, and informed, engaged citizens capable of keeping themselves safe.’

Harping on the need for more testing, Dr. Tedros said ‘only if countries are testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope.’

Commending partners for their support, Tedros said he called for ‘a fair and equitable distribution of the treatments and vaccines discovered in the new year.’

Guest speaker Professor David Heymann, a disease expert said ‘we now have the tools at our disposal to save lives, allowing us to learn to live with the virus.’

Heymann was a member of a WHO “surge team” deployed to strengthen the COVID-19 response in South Africa earlier last year.

Dr. Ryan agreed that COVID-19 is likely to become endemic in the global population. Vaccinations, he explained, ‘do not guarantee that infectious diseases will be eradicated.’

‘Societies would do better to focus on getting back to full strength, rather than on the ‘moonshot of eradication,’  he stressed.

As warned by the apex health organization, ‘it may be premature to imagine a world in which COVID-19 has been eradicated.’

It would be great for Nigeria and other developing countries can heed these warnings by deploying adequate resources, expertise and funds to boost the health sector, ahead of the looming viral plague.

.Ojukwu is a Fellow of Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship and  journalist. She is a campaigner and advocate for improved socio-economic and health services for all citizens, as well as the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals(SDGS).

 Please kindly send feedback to [email protected]

Comment here