Scientists call them “zoonotic diseases,” which include Ebola, SARS, Zika, HIV/AIDS, West Nile fever, and now COVID-19. They are infections that jump between animals and humans, "some of which leave illness and death in their wake," according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report titled: Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.
“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.
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The new report warns that future outbreaks will continue to emerge unless governments around the world take proactive measures to limit zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population. The diseases have been responsible for some of the world's deadliest outbreaks, which include the bubonic plague in the late Middle Ages and the influenza pandemic in the early twentieth century.
“People look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 and think that such disease outbreaks only happen once in a century,” says Maarten Kappelle, the head of scientific assessments at UNEP. “But that’s no longer true. If we don’t restore the balance between the natural world and the human one, these outbreaks will become increasingly prevalent.”
The report cited how COVID-19, which has already caused more than half a million deaths around the world -- likely originated in bats -- while others have suggested the virus originated in a Wuhan lab.
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The increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases are believed to be tied to rising trends that include the growing demand for animal protein; a rise in intense and unsustainable farming; the expanding use and exploitation of wildlife; and the climate crisis, according to the report. Wild animals including rodents, bats, carnivores, and non-human primates are those most likely to harbor and transmit zoonotic pathogens to humans.
UNEP and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are urging governments to adopt an approach called "One Health," which involves pulling experts in human, animal, environmental health to combat zoonotic disease outbreaks. Together, the experts can help monitor, control public health threats and learn how diseases spread among people, animals, plants, and the environment.
The report added that in low to middle-income countries, endemic zoonotic diseases associated with livestock production result in more than two million deaths a year. African countries, however, have had success in managing those types of diseases and the report believes they can serve as a blueprint for tackling future outbreaks.
"To prevent future outbreaks, countries need to conserve wild habitats, promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen food safety standards, monitor and regulate food markets, invest in technology to identify risks, and curb the illegal trade in wildlife," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said, according to NPR.