Countries can learn from Africa in handling future pandemics: UN report

In 2019, the continent reported 500 outbreaks of zoonotic diseases

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Wednesday 08 July 2020
Zoonotic diseases that are looked over kill at least two million people every year, mostly in developing countries Photo: Wallpaper Flare

The world can learn from Africa’s experience in handling zoonotic diseases — illnesses caused by germs that spread between animals and humans — in its fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and future pandemics, said a recent joint scientific assessment report.

In 2019, the continent reported 500 outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. Of this, Senegal accounted for nearly 57 per cent. The country reported over 280 outbreaks of Equine influenza or ‘horse flu’, that occurred as a result of strong winds and dust.

Stray donkeys were the main animals affected according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Last year, the continent managed to resolve most of the zoonotic outbreaks, revealed the OIE database.

The continent also experienced and responded to the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where its second-deadliest disease outbreak in the country’s eastern area was declared to be over June 25.

The Ebola virus infected 3,463 people and claimed 2,287 lives, according to the country’s government. Children accounted for 28 per cent of all cases, compared to about 20 per cent in previous epidemics, said the UNICEF.

“Ending this outbreak is a sign of hope for the region and the world: With solidarity, science, courage and commitment, even the most challenging epidemics can be controlled,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa.

Sectoral policy frameworks for dealing with the diseases in environment, agriculture and health is, so far, often inadequate, said the report, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) July 6, 2020.

A One Health approach, however, that unites public health, veterinary and environmental expertise was suggested by the report as the optimal method for preventing and responding to zoonotic disease outbreaks.

A number of African countries successfully managed deadly zoonotic outbreaks and have the potential to leverage this experience to tackle future outbreaks through this approach, said ILRI Director-General Jimmy Smith in the report.

Building robust public and animal health systems, taking early action to combat disease outbreaks and raising political awareness on the need for greater investments in preventing and controlling emerging diseases needs to be prioritised, the report said.

Most efforts to control infectious diseases were reactive rather than proactive, something that must change, the report added.

The continent’s disease control capacity and preparedness programs should be increased and scarce resources should be transferred to where they are needed most.

These require strengthening regional human (WHO regional office for Africa) and animal health (African Union – Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources) bodies, suggested Bernard Bett, a Senior Scientist, Animal and Human Health, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in a blog. 

Pandemics may be frequent

Around 60 per cent of the 1,400 microbes known to infect humans originated in animals, according to the report. Around 75 per cent of zoonoses ‘jump species’, according to the assessment.

Zoonotic diseases that are looked over kill at least two million people every year, mostly in developing countries. This is over four times the current reported death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic: Over half a million have died from the disease, as of July 7. 

COVID-19 is said to have most likely originated in bats as a zoonotic disease. More than 11 million COVID-19 cases were reported as of July 7.

Such outbreaks will become more common if countries neglect taking dramatic steps, said the report.

“COVID-19 may be the worst, but it is not the first,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP in a foreword to the report.

The frequency of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing due to unsustainable human activities, the report said.

Pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak were predictable, with how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals and alter environment being well-known, according to the report.

Unsustainable development has brought humans and animals increasingly closer and has made it easier for diseases to jump between species, the ILRI pointed out in the report.

An expanding human footprint on the planet increases risks of seeing bigger epidemics and eventually, a pandemic of the scale of COVID-19, the ILRI warned.

Drivers of pandemics

The increase in demand for animal protein, rise in unsustainable farming, increased exploitation of wildlife and the climate crisis are among the seven key trends responsible for increasing emergence of zoonotic diseases, said the report.

Climate change can affect occurrences of diseases like the bird-flu and the Ebola virus disease, concluded research by the University of Queenland, Australia.

Intensive settings of food animal farming give rise to antimicrobial resistance and can trigger a crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic, according to Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

COVID-19 is among diseases like Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome, West Nile fever and Rift Valley fever, whose spread from animal hosts to humans was intensified by anthropogenic pressures.

“People look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 and think such disease outbreaks happen only once in a century,” said 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,” he added.

While wildlife is the most common source of emerging diseases that affect humans, domestic animals may be the original sources, transmission pathways or amplifiers of zoonotic diseases.

There are linkages of diseases with issues such as air and water quality, food security and nutrition and mental and physical health.

These should inform policies that address challenges posed by current and future emerging infectious diseases, including zoonoses, the report suggested.

Preventing future pandemics

Ten policy response options to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics and to “build back better” from the current crisis were provided by the report. These include:

  • Expanding scientific enquiry into zoonoses
  • Regulating and monitoring traditional food markets
  • Incentivising the legal wildlife trade and animal husbandry to adopt zoonotic control measures
  • Radically transforming food systems

One hundred and sixty-one options to consider reducing the risk of future zoonotic epidemics were earlier suggested by a study published by journal Open Science Framework in June.

Rising economic burden

Emerging zoonotic diseases threaten human and animal health, economic development and the environment, the report said.

The greatest burden of zoonotic disease is borne by the poor, but emerging infectious diseases impact everyone, with monetary losses of emerging infectious disease greater in high-income countries.

Millions of small-scale farmers dependent on livestock are pushed into severe poverty by such outbreaks.

Livestock is an important asset and a major source of livelihood for farmers in low- and middle-income countries affected most by the zoonotic diseases.

In the past two decades, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion.

This does not include the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion over the next few years, said the report based on estimates by the International Monetary Fund.

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