By Sharon Atieno

With COVID-19 adding to a growing list of diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans (zoonotic) including Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever; a recently released report confirms that a one health approach which unites human, animal and environmental health is the optimal method for preventing as well as responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics.

It is estimated that 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.

Moreover, sixty per cent of known infectious diseases and 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. In the last two decades alone, these 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.

The report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, is a joint effort by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Among the seven trends identified by the report as drivers of increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases is: increased demand for animal protein; a rise in intense and unsustainable farming; the increased use and exploitation of wildlife; unsustainable utilization of natural resources; travel and transportation; changes in food supply chain and the climate change.

“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.

“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.”

The report finds that Africa in particular, which has experienced and responded to a number of zoonotic epidemics including most recently, Ebola outbreaks, could be a source of important solutions to quell future outbreaks.

“The situation on the continent today is ripe for intensifying existing zoonotic diseases and facilitating the emergence and spread of new ones,” said ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith.

“But with their experiences with Ebola and other emerging diseases, African countries are demonstrating proactive ways to manage disease outbreaks. They are applying, for example, novel risk-based rather than rule-based approaches to disease control, which are best suited to resource-poor settings, and they are joining up human, animal and environment expertise in proactive One Health initiatives.”

The report highlights 10 key recommendations based on the one health approach which can help governments, businesses and other actors not only to respond to and mitigate future disease outbreaks, but also to reduce the risk of their emergence.

These include: raising awareness and increased knowledge of zoonotic and emerging disease risk and prevention; increasing investment in interdisciplinary approaches; expanding scientific enquiry into the complex dimensions of emerging diseases; improving cost-benefit analyses of emerging diseases prevention interventions; and developing effective means of monitoring and regulating practices associated with zoonotic disease.

Others are: health considerations in incentives for (sustainable) food systems; identifying key drivers of emerging diseases in animal husbandry; supporting integrated management of landscapes and seascapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife; strengthening existing and building new capacities among health stakeholders, and operationalizing the one health approach in land-use; and sustainable development planning, implementation and monitoring, among other fields.