To understand the outbreak of zoonotic diseases, track human activities causing environmental changes, key message of UNEP-ILRI report

To understand the outbreak of zoonotic diseases, track human activities causing environmental changes, key message of UNEP-ILRI report

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published Published on Nov 6, 2020   modified Modified on Nov 9, 2020

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which was released on July 6th (observed as World Zoonoses Day by research institutions and non-governmental organisations across the globe) this year, says that around 60 percent of known infectious diseases in humans are estimated to have an animal origin. Likewise, almost three-fourth of all new and emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic i.e. these diseases have been transmitted to humans from vertebrate animals (i.e. hosts). Diseases like Ebola, SARS, Zika virus and bird flu spread among human beings via animals. The most described zoonotic diseases occur indirectly, e.g. via the food system.

In a recent statement, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen said that zoonotic diseases have caused economic damage to the tune of roughly US$ 100 billion over the last two decades and prior to COVID-19.

Among other things, the UNEP-ILRI report has identified that there are seven human-mediated (anthropogenic) factors that are driving the emergence of zoonoses. They are: 1) increasing human demand for animal protein; 2) unsustainable agricultural intensification; 3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; 4) unsustainable utilisation of natural resources accelerated by urbanisation, land use change and extractive industries; 5) increased travel and transportation; 6) changes in food supply; and 7) climate change.

Entitled Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, the UNEP-ILRI report states that the frequency of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing owing to the rise in unsustainable human activities. Outbreak of pandemics such as the COVID-19 can be determined on the basis of how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals, and change environments. Although wildlife is the most common source of emerging human diseases, domesticated animals (i.e. livestock, domesticated wildlife and pets) may be original sources, transmission pathways, or amplifiers of zoonotic disease, finds the report.

Due to deforestation, particularly in tropical regions, there has been an increase in infectious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever, observes the report. There has been a rise in encroachment of humans into natural habitats as a result of growth in global human population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to nearly 7.8 billion presently. So, humans are physically closer to animals compared to before. It has also increased the risk of animal-to-human disease transmission.

The emerging zoonotic diseases not only damage human and animal health, they also pose a threat to economic development and the environment. Poor people often bear the greatest burden of zoonotic diseases. However, emerging infectious diseases impact everyone and their prevention is significantly more cost-effective than response. Among other things, the UNEP-ILRI report states that indirect impact of COVID-19 pandemic include loss of jobs, disrupted food supply chains, border closings, restricted mobility, restricted tourism, reduced education opportunities, business closures/ bankruptcies and a rise in fatalities because health services are overwhelmed or people simply avoid them.


UNEP Asia Pacific Webinar: Preventing the next pandemic - Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, please click here to access the video.


The report by UNEP and ILRI has warned its readers that further outbreaks will emerge unless governments across the world "take active measures to prevent other zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population, and sets out ten recommendations to prevent future pandemics."

The report identifies ten practical steps that governments can take to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks:

* 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.

Some of the key policy related steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of the emerging zoonoses and future pandemics, include regulating and monitoring traditional food markets, incentivizing the legal wildlife trade and animal husbandry to adopt zoonotic control measures, and further promoting the One Health approach. The authors of the report have identified the One Health approach -- which unites public health, veterinary and environmental expertise -- as the optimal method for preventing as well as responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

In order to mitigate threats from zoonotic diseases, concerted policy action is required to check the multiple drivers of their emergence, which include habitat loss and degradation, overexploitation of wildlife, and land-use changes, among other factors. A farm-to-fork approach is required to be undertaken for reducing risk from zoonotic diseases along the entire consumptive chain, from production to processing, and transport to consumption of food, suggests the UNEP-ILRI report. Humans need to create and maintain resilient agro-ecological food systems that depend on natural synergies and harness biological diversity for food production without destroying wildlife habitats.

The glossary provided at the end of the report can help even laypersons to understand complex scientific terms like 'co-morbidities' or 'infectivity'.


Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, United Nations Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute (2020), please click here to read more

Press release: Unite human, animal and environmental health to prevent the next pandemic – UN Report, 6 July, 2020, please click here to access

75% emerging infectious diseases zoonotic: UN Report -Rajeshwari Sinha, Down to Earth, 7 July, 2020, please click here to read more


Image Courtesy: Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, UNEP and ILRI

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