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Animal to human virus transmission may increase, UN warns

Credit: Belga

Transmission of viral diseases from animals to humans may increase, the UN warns, if we do not take action now to protect their natural habitats.

These so-called ‘zoonotic diseases’, like the new coronavirus (Covid-19), are already known to kill two million people per year globally. Previous pan- and epidemics such as Ebola, SARS, Zika-virus and the swine flu are all examples of zoonotic diseases.

The warning comes from the UN’s corona-related report published this week, in which the organisation urges to not only look for short-term but also long-term solutions. Its message is to “unite human, animal and environmental health to prevent the next pandemic.”

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“The rising trend in zoonotic diseases is driven by the degradation of our natural environment – through land degradation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and other stresses,” according to the UN.

The executive director of the programme, Inger Andersen, said: “In the last century we have seen at least six major outbreaks of novel coronaviruses. Over the last two decades and before Covid-19, zoonotic diseases caused economic damage of $100 billion (€88 billion).”

Andersen added that, globally, “two million people in low- and middle-income countries die each year from neglected endemic zoonotic diseases – such as anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and rabies.”

“These are often communities with complex development problems, high dependence on livestock and proximity to wildlife.”

One of the leading causes of the deterioration of natural habitats is food production. Nature has often had to make way for agriculture and meat farms.

In addition, the increase in traffic and travel has now made it much easier for viruses to spread worldwide.

In the report, several suggestions are made for government policies that could help prevent future pandemics. They include encouraging sustainable development, funding research, and increasing biodiversity.

In the future, Africa has the potential to become a leading force in implementing these suggestions, as the continent has successfully dealt with multiple zoonotic pandemics and holds some of the world’s biggest nature reserves and rainforests.

Amée Zoutberg
The Brussels Times