The Way We Interact With Our Wildlife Now, Will Determine How We Deal With The Next Global Health Pandemic

THE world is still struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic which has had the global health sector on its toes since 2020 as scientists search for a solution to the prevailing health crises. The first case of the coronavirus strain or the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, a City in the Hubei province of China in December, 2019.

By Michael Gwarisa

More than two years after the first case was recorded, scientist and health experts are still looking into its origin. Even though the bulk of transmissions worldwide have mostly spread through person-to-person contact, the virus’s origin has been linked to wildlife. Studies over the years have traced coronaviruses back to certain species of animals, such as cattle and camels.

Although the transmission of coronaviruses from animals to humans is rare, health experts have so far gathered that this new strain of the coronavirus likely came from bats, though one study suggests pangolins may be the origin. Some reports trace the earliest cases back to a seafood and animal market in Wuhan. It may have been from here that SARS-CoV-2 started to spread to humans.

Diseases that have a tendency of jumping from animals to humans are called Zoonotic diseases and if preliminary findings are anything to go by, then COVID-19 is one of them. The Zika, swine flu, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome are just some of the major zoonotic epidemics and pandemics from the past several decades. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated in 2016 that up to 75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic.

Zoonotic diseases are caused by harmful germs like viruses, bacterial, parasites, and fungi. According the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC), these germs can cause many different types of illnesses in people and animals, ranging from mild to serious illness and even death. Animals can sometimes appear healthy even when they are carrying germs that can make people sick, depending on the zoonotic disease.

Zoonotic diseases are not a new phenomenon and for centuries, they have been the world’s biggest headache, causing some of the biggest epidemics and pandemics that have exerted unprecedented pressure on the global health sector. History has it that in the mid-1300s, fleas hitching rides on rats helped to set off the deadliest pandemic in human history. The rodents, infected with bubonic plague, had climbed aboard merchant ships and caravans heading from Asia to Europe where, historians believe, the fleas abandoned the dying rats and moved in with humans. The infected bugs are cited as a major cause of the Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million people.

Unlike the medieval pandemics like the Bubonic plague that would take weeks or months at times to move from one continent to another, advancements in technologies and simplified travel have made it easy for dangerous bugs to move from one content to another in just a matter of days. Scientific data has placed the COVID-19 on the sixth most deadly human epidemic or pandemic in history, claiming 5.4 million lives and counting. In just three months after the first case was recorded, the coronavirus had been reported in almost every part of the globe.

Zoonoses or diseases that spill from animals to humans are occurring more frequently and spreading faster than ever. The biggest question at the moment could be how these diseases jump from animals to human.  According to Jonathan Epstein, the vice president for science and outreach at EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that leads a collaboration in the CREID Network to improve the understanding of and response to zoonotic outbreaks in Southeast Asia, “Preventing spillover [to humans] is the real way to prevent epidemics.” But because prevention involves so many complicated strategies, “that’s the hardest thing to do.”

Africa and Asia have over the years become a fertile breeding ground for Zoonotic diseases due to a myriad of reasons. For example Africa still holds the world’s largest wildlife population and in that vein, constant human and wildlife interaction is inevitable. Certain practices however if they go unchecked have potential to birth one of the world’s deadliest pandemics in the future.

Some of the modes of transmission for Zoonotic diseases can be avoided and in the process lead to a reduction in infections jumping from wildlife or domestic animals to human beings. According to the CDC, people commonly contract animal germs through contact with infected creatures (typically with their bodily fluids or through a bite), time spent in areas where those creatures live (such as among chicken coops, caves, and collections of water), or consumption of contaminated food (such as fruit soiled by animals).

The viruses that cause versions of swine flu, for example, jump from pigs to humans mostly at farms, researchers believe. Other zoonoses are delivered by so-called vector insects, which transfer pathogens from host animals to people. These illnesses include Zika (from monkeys via mosquitos) and Lyme disease (from deer and mice via ticks). Some zoonoses use animals as intermediaries: The leading theory behind the outbreak of COVID-19 is that a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) jumped from bats to other animals in China before infecting humans through contact with infected animals sold for consumption at wet markets.

A number of challenges stand in Africa’s way in as far as containing the spread of Zoonotic diseases is concerned. Increasing wildlife related crimes such as poaching and trafficking of wildlife to foreign markets pose a threat to the containment of zoonotic diseases. According to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), trafficking in wildlife fauna and flora can significantly impact human health, national security and economic development. Scientists believe the COVID-19 is likely linked to a zoonotic pathogen1 in wild bats that was passed to humans, possibly via an intermediary, which may have been the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal.

Another challenge that could see Zoonotic diseases becoming a major health concern in the near future is the continued invasion or encroachment into natural or wildlife frontiers and the depletion of forests. Deforestation, and encroachment of wildlife habitats have forced wild animals to migrate into areas populated by people. In countries like Zimbabwe, the main cause of deforestation is agriculture in most cases poorly planned. At the height of the land reform program in Zimbabwe, some villagers invaded parts of one of the biggest sanctuaries in the country, the Save Conservancy, leading to uncontrolled poaching and accelerated depletion of various wildlife species. Even though the dispute has been resolved, sporadic incidences of people invading sanctuaries have been reported over the years.

The consumption of wildlife has been happening for years in almost every part of the globe. In Asian countries, the concept of wet markets has also seen the emergence of trade and consumption in wildlife products. A “wet market” is a public marketplace where fresh produce, meat and fish are sold. The leading theory behind the outbreak of COVID-19 is that a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) jumped from bats to other animals in China before infecting humans through contact with infected animals sold for consumption at wet markets. Wild animals would not pass on these pathogens to humans if humans didn’t bring them to cities, markets and shops.

Illegally sourced wildlife traded in a clandestine way escapes any sanitary control and exposes human beings to the transmission of new viruses and other pathogens. According to the UNODC, There is therefore need to tackle illicit wildlife trafficking in order to preventing future pandemics stemming from zoonotic pathogens. The existence of parallel wildlife trade markets -illegal alongside legal- makes the enforcement and security measures against wildlife trafficking ever more relevant to prevent a similar crisis in the future. Illegally sourced wildlife traded in a clandestine way escapes any sanitary control and exposes human beings to the transmission of new viruses and other pathogens.

Without human interference through capturing, slaughtering, selling, trafficking, trading and consuming of wildlife, the evolution and transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus would have been highly unlikely.

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