Ten practical solutions to prevent future pandemics emerging from animal sources - UN report

Wildlife displayed for sale as bushmeat at a wet market in Lagos, Nigeria (Credit: Keystone)

Further Covid-like disease outbreaks will emerge unless governments take active measures to prevent other zoonotic diseases from crossing into the human population, warns a joint report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), published today. But this could be prevented if more measures were taken to halt human encroachment into wildlife areas and trade in wildlife, as well as promoting more sustainable livestock management.

Why is it important? Covid-19, which most likely originated in bats and has already caused more than half a million deaths around the world, is only latest in a growing number of human diseases that recently emerged from animal sources – including Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever and Rift Valley fever. Not only are they killers, but they wreak economic havoc. Every year, some two million people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, die from neglected zoonotic diseases, leading to economic losses of more than $100 billion. The Covid-19 pandemic is expected to cost $9 trillion over the next few years.

But these trends are largely under human control. They are driven by the increased exploitation of wildlife for their meat, skins or horns, as well as through human encroachment on wildlife reserves through resource extraction, deforestation and settlement expansion, as well as climate change-related migration of animals and humans. All of these put disease-carrying animals and people into closer contact. The new report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission, identifies a One Health approach -which unites public health, veterinary and environmental expertise- as the optimal way to prevent and respond to future pandemics.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen:

“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. 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.”

Seven trends driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

  • Increasing demand for animal protein;

  • Unsustainable agricultural intensification;

  • Increased use and exploitation of wildlife;

  • Unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries;

  • Travel and transportation;

  • Changes in food supply chains;

  • Climate change;

Ten practical steps to fight pandemics. Environmental action to protect wildlife and prevent deforestation are not just good for animal wellbeing. Such measures help prevent disease and needs to be linked with health in a “One Health” Approach.

  • Raising awareness of zoonotic diseases;

  • Strengthening monitoring and regulation practices associated with zoonotic diseases, including food systems;

  • Incentives for more sustainable land management practices among people living near wildlife areas, as well as development of food sources and livelihood alternatives that do not rely on the destruction of habitats and biodiversity;

  • Improving biosecurity and control - identification of the key drivers of emerging diseases in livestock management, and encouraging proven management and zoonotic disease control measures;

  • Supporting the sustainable management of landscapes and seascapes that enhance sustainable co-existence of agriculture and wildlife;

  • Strengthening capacities among health stakeholders in countries to prevent zoonotic diseases;

  • Operationalizing a “One Health” approach to land-use and sustainable development planning and implementation.

  • Expanding scientific enquiry into zoonotic diseases;

  • Improving cost-benefit analyses of interventions to include full-cost accounting of societal impacts of disease;

The potential of Africa. African countries, which have successfully managed deadly zoonotic outbreaks in the past, have the potential to leverage this experience to tackle future outbreaks through approaches that incorporate human, animal and environmental health. Home to a large portion of the world’s remaining intact rainforests and other wildlife-rich areas, Africa has also the world’s fastest-growing human population, leading to increased encounters between livestock and wildlife and in turn, the risk of zoonotic diseases. ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith :

“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.”