Conditions rife for more pandemics in absence of curbs on deforestation and wildlife...

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Home / India News / Conditions rife for more pandemics in absence of curbs on deforestation and wildlife trade: WWF

New Delhi: Large-scale conversion of tracts of land for agriculture; trade and consumption of high-risk wild species are the two main drivers of zoonotic diseases, according to a report by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) released on Wednesday.

Zoonotic diseases are viral infections that are transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.

The report, a compilation of existing evidence on SARS-CoV-2, which causes the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), and other zoonotic diseases, said the frequency of zoonotic disease outbreaks caused by a spillover of pathogens from animals to humans might have more than tripled in the last decade.

The diversity of these pathogens has also increased with the number of new zoonotic diseases infecting people quadrupling in the last 10 years, the WWF report titled, “Covid 19—Urgent Call to Protect People and Nature” said, referring to a 2008 paper published in the Nature journal on emerging infectious diseases.

“These increases are driven by more frequent contact between humans and dangerous animal pathogens, as well as by contact with a wider variety of species, resulting in the emergence of new forms of diseases in humans. These new zoonotic diseases have posed a grave threat to human health around the world, causing global pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Swine Flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and currently Covid-19,” the report said.

Every year three to four zoonotic diseases are emerging.

The increase in zoonotic outbreaks is a symptom of a broken relationship between humans and nature and is likely to worsen, the report said warning that ecological conditions are rife for another pandemic unless strong actions are taken such as a complete halt of wildlife trade, enforcing legislation to stop deforestation, a new deal for nature and people that safeguard biodiversity and halves consumption. It also called for the incorporation of a One Health Approach, which has shared policies for humans, animals, and the environment.

The report underlined that though questions remain about the exact origin of Covid-19 by keeping different wild and livestock species in cramped conditions, the risk of genetic recombination between different viruses and transmission to new species, including humans, has increased.

Improper handling of live domestic animals and their meat can also drive potential disease exposure, particularly, when these animals are slaughtered or kept along with other wildlife species. The initial Covid-19 disease outbreak is likely to have been attributed to human contact with infected palm civets and raccoon dogs at a wildlife market in China’s Guangdong province.

This was substantiated by the discovery of SARS-like viruses in these animals in Chinese wildlife markets after the initial outbreak.

Researchers have also found that several of the early SARS patients in Guangdong province were involved in selling or preparing wildlife for consumption, the report said.

Globally between 1945 and 2005 land-use change has contributed to almost half of zoonotic disease events, WWF said, referring to findings of another scientific paper published in 2010 in the Nature journal.

Extensive deforestation and fragmentation of land in West and Central Africa are linked to several Ebola outbreaks in these regions, according to WWF.

Most habitat loss associated with agriculture is owing to only three commodities such as beef, soy, and palm oil.

“As a result of extensive land conversion, about 70% of forests globally are now within one kilometre (km) of a forest edge and are exposed to further fragmentation. Not only forests are at risk – over half of the original Cerrado and North American grassland prairies have also been lost,” the report said calling for laws to stop the fragmentation of forests.

Experts said India, which has its own rich biodiversity, also needs a One Health policy.

“In a country like India, where people live cheek-by-jowl, not just with each other, but also with among the highest numbers of livestock, including both four-legged and two-legged, as well as in areas of high biodiversity. Such close proximity means that the diversity of pathogens that humans are potentially exposed to is very high. To understand the risks from these pathogens, it’s necessary for us to adopt a One Health approach, where we have to work in large interdisciplinary teams that can investigate not only human and animal health, but also the linkages with changes in the natural environment,” said Abi Tamim Vanak, fellow, Wellcome Trust and senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

“It’s hard to think beyond the tragic impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 healthcare crisis. But, it’s also an opportune moment for us to act if we are to deliver a recovery that benefits both humans and nature. The challenge and opportunity before us are to begin to think of development through the lens of environmental health,” said Ravi Singh, secretary-general, WWF India.

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