Controlling zoonotic diseases depends on a delicate human–animal balance
Recognition of the delicate balance between human, animal and environmental health has led to the development of the One Health concept. Proponents of One Health encourage veterinarians, healthcare professionals and environmental experts to come together to tackle the threat of zoonotic diseases and stifle outbreaks. I spent several years researching zoonotic disease control, and I was consistently struck by the role that economic and social conditions play in the emergence and spread of these diseases.
People who live with and depend on animals are frequently blamed for the spread of zoonotic diseases, when they fail to maintain certain hygiene standards or are reluctant to report infections to relevant authorities. To improve this situation, it is important to understand the relationships that exist between humans and the animals on whom their livelihoods depend. Anyone who remembers the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or foot and mouth disease crises in the UK will recall the emotional and economic devastation faced by farmers who had to slaughter their animals to control the outbreak. Now imagine the same situation in countries where farmers have no insurance and limited social security.
Egypt, for example, was hit by a major bird flu outbreak in 2006. Farmers were so concerned about losing their livelihoods that, rather than allow their potentially infected ducks and chickens to be culled, they would hide them from public health authorities. When I was researching how small-scale cattle farmers view measures to control bovine tuberculosis in Ethiopia, they told me that they would never slaughter cows infected with the disease, as they were both highly valuable and seen as family members. If farmers were truly concerned that their animal was infectious, they might sell it, but without informing the buyer that it had a disease.
Such behaviours might appear irresponsible to those on the outside, but for many people whose lives depend on these animals, poverty is a far more terrifying prospect than the spread of an illness.
Addressing the social factors behind the spread of zoonotic diseases
There is an unfortunate tendency to blame zoonotic disease transmission largely on the actions of those living in the place where the disease first starts affecting humans. The consumption of meat from wild animals (known as bushmeat) was implicated in the west African Ebola outbreak in 2013, for example. But it is unfair to attribute zoonotic diseases to certain practices more common in low- and middle-income countries, especially when the cases mentioned in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone were all driven by precarious food security and a very real fear of poverty.
Research increasingly shows that global trends as diverse as deforestation, international air travel, abattoir safety, and antibiotic usage in both humans and animals are all contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, this has a huge impact on health and way of life for us all. The decisions that we make about how we eat, travel and live all contribute to the dynamics of zoonosis. It is time to stop blaming people we have never met, who live in places we have never been to. Instead, we must call on governments worldwide to learn from past outbreaks, and address the underlying social conditions of those living and working with animals when formulating policies to prevent future pandemics.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.