A new report from the United Nations, released Monday, is warning that diseases that pass from animals to humans—such as COVID-19, which scientists believe originated in bats—could become more common in the future.
These pathogens, referred to as “zoonotic” diseases, are emerging with increasing frequency due to stresses placed by humans on animal habitats, the report says. Such stresses, including deforestation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and unsustainable farming practices, put humans and animals in increasingly close quarters, facilitating the jump that viruses can make from animal to human hosts.
Ebola, West Nile, malaria, MERS, and SARS are all zoonotic diseases that have devastated human populations in the past. And according to the UN, neglected zoonotic diseases continue to kill an estimated 2 million people every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, and have caused economic losses of over $100 billion since the turn of the century. That estimate doesn’t even include losses from COVID-19, which are forecast to reach $9 trillion in the next few years.
Unless governments take measures to limit the crossing of zoonotic diseases into human populations, we can expect more outbreaks to come, says the UN report, which offers 10 recommendations to prevent pandemics. Chief among the UN’s recommendations is the interdisciplinary “One Health” method, which unites public health, veterinary, and environmental expertise in one coordinated effort, as well as supporting the sustainable management of landscapes and seascapes, and alternatives for food security that do not rely on the destruction of animal habitats and biodiversity.
“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,” United Nations Environment Programme director Inger Andersen said in a statement. “To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment.”
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