Can the world prevent another zoonotic pandemic?


The likelihood of another pandemic looms large.
Top scientists harp on this inevitability.
But can the world prevent another health disaster, or combat its humongous toll?
This is the challenge confronting many world leaders and researchers, as incidences of vector-borne pathogens continue to escalate and threaten society.
Sadly, several countries are still grappling with coronavirus, which has wrecked millions of lives and businesses, while exacerbating fears, over the possibility of another animal-linked epidemic.
The exigency, is quite petrifying, due to the incalculable impact of the humanitarian crises, economic uncertainties and dilapidated health systems, in Nigeria and other disadvantaged jurisdictions.
Queries over what to eat, drink or even where to go, dominate the media and public discourses.
Should I stop eating meat?
How can I survive on a vegetarian diet?
What happens to my pets?
Should I throw them away?
My passion for hunting is being stalled. What should I do?
How can I curb my demand for exotic meat and such delicacies?
These are few posers popping up, in private and public settings.
The current abnormalities, have undoubtedly, provoked more questions than answers.
Emerging scientific findings, attribute the unfortunate occurrences to environmental disruptions.
Africa seems hardest hit, with the resurgence of Ebola in Congo and Lassa fever in Nigeria.
According to Nigeria Center for Disease Control(NCDC), risk communications and community engagement activities were scaled-up recently, following significant increase in cases across states, compared to last year.
‘This year alone, 218 deaths have been reported with a Case Fatality Rate (CFR) of 20.8 percent, which is lower than 22.5 percent, recorded in 2019.’
According to the agency, 27 States, reported, at least one confirmed case, across 129 Local Government Areas(LGAs), this year.
‘Of all confirmed cases, Ondo recorded 33 percent, followed by Edo with 32 percent and Ebonyi at 7 percent.’
Nigeria and sister nations have witnessed, some successes in curbing animal-borne infections.
However, governments need to improve current strategies, due to vulnerabilities in the region.
Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP), Inger Andersen, said ‘African countries, have successfully managed deadly zoonotic outbreaks and have the potential to leverage this experience to tackle future outbreaks, through approaches that incorporate human, animal and environmental health.’
Inger, who stated this in a statement, said the region’s vast biodiversity, predisposes it to risks.
‘The continent is home to a large portion of the world’s remaining intact rainforests and other wild lands. Africa is also home to the world’s fastest-growing human population, leading to an increase in encounters between livestock and wildlife and in turn, the risk of zoonotic diseases.’
Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Jimmy Smith, said ‘the situation on the continent today is ripe for intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and facilitating the emergence and spread of new ones.’
‘But with their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks. They are applying, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings. They are joining up human, animal and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives.’
The rising trend, according to UNEP chief, is driven by the degradation of our natural environment, through land degradation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and other stresses.
‘COVID-19 is just one example of such incidences, from Ebola to MERS to West Nile and Rift Valley fevers, caused by viruses that have jumped from animal hosts into the human population,’ he added.
A new report has warned that ‘further outbreaks will emerge, unless governments take active measures to prevent other zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population, and set out 10 recommendations to prevent future pandemics.’

The report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, a joint effort by UNEP and ILRI, identified major causes as ‘increased demand for animal protein, a rise in intense and unsustainable farming, increased use and exploitation of wildlife and climate crisis.’
‘Africa in particular, which has experienced and responded to a number of zoonotic epidemics including Ebola outbreaks, could be a source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks,’ it noted.

‘UNEP chief 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 advocated for ‘a One Health approach, which unites public health, veterinary and environmental expertise, as the optimal method to tackle such infestations.

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.’

They highlighted 10 practical steps to avert future zoonotic outbreaks, notably, 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.
Governments should also improve biosecurity and control, identify key drivers of emerging diseases in animal husbandry and encourage proven management and zoonotic disease control measures, support the sustainable management of landscapes and seascapes.
According to the scientists, these natural resources enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife.
Authorities should also strengthen capacities among health stakeholders, as well as operationalize the One Health approach in land-use and sustainable development planning, implementation and monitoring, to effectively curb these viruses.
The report was launched on World Zoonoses Day, observed by research institutions and nongovernmental entities on July 6, to commemorate the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur.
Recall that Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies, a zoonotic disease on July 6 1885.
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.’

.Ojukwu is a journalist and Fellow of Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship.
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