Zoonotic diseases, which pass from animals to humans, are on the rise. This is a direct consequence of the effects of climate change, the destruction of natural areas, and certain aspects of the illegal wildlife trade.
After the rapid and lethal spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus â the root of the Covid-19Â pandemic – experts are warning of the urgent need to tackle biodiversity loss; this coronavirus is believed to have passed from wild animals to humans due to changes in natural systems.
Species and their habitats are important, and both play a role in guaranteeing the survival of the other; in turn, human health depends on ecosystem goods and services and biodiversity.
Natural ecosystems destruction and species extinction at the hands of humans contribute to the spread of infectious diseases; the World Health Organization (WHO) calculates that more than 70% of the diseases that have affected humans in the last 40 years have been transmitted by animals, and this number is increasing.
Miguel Angel Vales, Doctor of Science and expert at Cuba’s Institute of Ecology and Systematics, suggests that there is a relationship between pandemics or epidemics in general and ecosystem health.
As ecosystems are destroyed, host species (many of which carry coronaviruses) can no longer remain in their habitats and must look for new opportunities.
Daysi Vilamajo, Doctor of Science and senior researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, explains that the species within an ecosystem have a function chain, in which a virus has different hosts; when we break this chain, alter the ecosystem or remove wildlife from its natural environment, we endanger human health.
For example, in the case of removing animals from their natural habitats: “When this happens, prior studies and quarantine must be carried out to ensure that the animals are not carrying any viruses; but in the illegal trade, species are taken from the ecosystem and exported via irregular channels, they are used, eaten and distributed, and this is where the problem arises, because no sanitation controls have been carried out according to the species’ characteristics.”
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supports measures to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans and sparking a public health crisis.
To this end, UNEP supports the legal, sustainable and safe trade in wildlife rather than permanent blanket bans, which may often have unintended negative consequences.
In many parts of the world, sanitary standards, welfare measures and regulations for the wild and domestic animals sold in markets need to be strengthened; both wild and domestic live animals and their meat should be subject to similarly strict sanitary standards, UNEP representatives say.
Â The WHO multi-sectoral “One Health” approach is a strategy that includes collaborative efforts between diverse disciplines and sectors at the local, national and international levels, to achieve the well-being of people, animals and the environment.
One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
Particularly relevant spheres include food safety, the control of zoonoses and combating antibiotic resistance, for which epidemiological and laboratory data is shared.
For doctor Miguel Ãngel Vales, when we refer to “one health” in relation to human and ecosystem health, it is about a process of raising environmental awareness and citizen participation.
This objective involves the population in these matters, for example through workshops that provide more information on the topic and encourage participation in a range of activities.
The international community is developing various initiatives to tackle this problem. For example, WHO and the German government have established a specialist centre in Berlin to predict and detect epidemics. The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence was inaugurated in September of this year, to ensure better preparation for future threats to public health.