The appearance of zoonotic diseases (viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans) is not new to this time, although it does seem to be on the rise. Research suggests these have quadrupled in the past 50 years. And a look at this young 21st century seems sufficient evidence, given that four have already occurred: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), avian influenza (H5N1), swine (H1N1) and the current COVID-19. In all cases, they were viruses unique to animal populations that mutated, invaded a human organism, and then spread as new pathogens among the world population.
The common bond between all of them? The human being. This was explained by David Quammen, author of " Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic"
A wild species can contain 50 viruses unknown to humans. They do not affect them because they evolved with them. But that is not our case. When their habitat is intervened, when the forests where these species live are cut down, when they are taken out of there to sell them as commodities and consume them, the natural barriers that exist between them and us are also broken, exposing ourselves to new viruses. Although one does not live near the disappeared or fragmented forest or the markets where wild fauna and flora are commercialized, the consequences come, as currently demonstrated by COVID-19 and pandemics such as HIV, SARS or yellow fever.
This is explained by the United Nations Environment Program (UN Environment):"By changing the use of land for settlements, agriculture, logging or industries and their associated infrastructures, the habitat of the animals has been fragmented or invaded. Natural buffer zones, which normally separate humans from wildlife, have been destroyed, and bridges have been created for pathogens to pass from animals to people. "
According to its 2016 Borders report, 75%of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are of animal origin and closely related to the health of ecosystems. Zoonoses thrive when there are changes in the environment, in animal or human hosts, or in the pathogens themselves. "In the past century, the combination of population growth and declining ecosystems and biodiversity has led to unprecedented opportunities that have facilitated the transfer of pathogens from animals to people. On average, a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months, "he said.
Deforestation and change in land use
Forests are essential ecosystems for life on Earth. We know. These regulate water, conserve the soil and the atmosphere and provide countless services that satisfy needs, not to mention the multitude of living beings (some of us known, others not yet) that make these environments their home.
However, human intervention in them has been devastating. Since the Industrial Revolution until now, a third of the Earth's forests have been removed, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services(IPBES), released last year. In other words, at present, the world's forest area is 68%from the pre-industrial level estimated. And there's more: 75% has been damaged from the planet's surface. Today, only 25% is free from substantial impacts caused by human activities and the percentage would drop to 10% in 2050.
How is this related to the emergence of new viruses? Devoid of their natural habitat, wildlife is forced to change its distribution, to migrate in search of food, to come into contact with other species to compete for scarce resources and to approach human populations in search of spaces to survive.
Ricardo Baldi, scientist of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research of Argentina ( Conicet), as explained: "Deforestation is linked to more than 30% of registered outbreaks of diseases, such as Ebola and Zika, in the last 30 years. The loss of habitat makes the animals stay closer to human populations, also generating contact opportunities and, therefore, the appearance of new zoonoses ".
According to a studyIn the Amazon, an increase in deforestation of around 4% over a three-year period increased the incidence of malaria by almost 50% as mosquitoes that transmit the disease flourished in recently deforested areas.
And is that, by invading and fragmenting tropical forests - habitats of innumerable animal species and, within them, unknown and potentially new viruses - there is a risk of releasing viruses from their natural hosts, which can jump to humans. An example of this is HIV, which possibly crossed from chimpanzees to people in the 1920s, when hunters killed and ate them in Africa.
Biodiversity protects us
"Ecosystems are inherently resilient and adaptable, and by supporting the existence of diverse species, they help regulate disease. The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for a pathogen to spread rapidly, " explains UN Environment. In other words, biodiversity protects us. The lower the biodiversity, the greater the possibility that the agents that go around in nature behave like pathogens and we will relive the current pandemic situation with new zoonotic diseases.
"Genetic diversity provides a natural source of disease resistance among animal populations. For example, intensive livestock farming often produces genetic similarities within herds and herds, increasing the susceptibility of these animals to the spread of pathogens from wildlife, "states the United Nations agency. "Biodiverse areas allow disease-transmitting vectors to feed on a wide variety of hosts, some of which are less effective reservoirs of pathogens. Conversely, when pathogens are found in less biodiverse areas, transmission can be amplified, as has been demonstrated in the case of West Nile virus and Lyme disease. "
A decade ago, scientists already estimated that between 150 and 200 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals go extinct every 24 hours.. This is almost 1000 times the "natural" or "bottom" rate. Currently, according to IPBES, nearly 1 million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction, many in the coming decades and more than ever in the history of humanity.
Added to this is the illegal or poorly regulated wildlife trade, a millionaire business (that moves between 8000 and 20,000 million euros a year) comparable to arms or drug trafficking, and which today ---with the COVID-19 pandemic , which is estimated to have originated in a Chinese market that sold these species, it needs to begin to be recognized as a public health issue since it facilitates zoonotic jumps.
It is worth mentioning that the first cases of SARSwere associated with contact with caged civets in a market and some Ebola cases are believed to be in Central Africa they were transferred from animal hosts to humans when infected gorilla meat was consumed.
Annually, as estimated by the World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF, for its acronym in English), this trade is responsible for the death of an average of 100 tigers, 30,000 elephants, more than 1,000 rhinos and more than 100,000 pangolins. To this are added, for example, the 1.5 million live birds that are marketed per year and the up to 440,000 tons of medicinal plants that are transported illegally in that same period.
Air pollution and COVID-19: a bad combination
A Harvard studyprovided the first clear evidence that exposure to air pollution by particles over many years can strongly influence the chances of living or dying from COVID-19. "For every small increase in air pollution during that time, there is a substantial increase in death from COVID-19," said Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and director of the Harvard Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. , at a press conference on April 16. He spoke virtually alongside WHO's Dr. Maria Neira and former head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy, and the full video can be viewed here..
Before the current health crisis, scientists had already shown that polluted air was associated with increased mortality during the 2002 SARS pandemic, another strain of coronavirus.that killed 774 people and infected 8890. According to research published in 2003, a person living in an area with high air pollution was more than twice as likely to die from SARS. In Chinese cities with high or moderate air pollution, the mortality rate was 8.9% and 7.49%, respectively, compared to areas with low air pollution, where it was 4%.
How to wash your hands without water?
Another environmental factor that exacerbates the risk of contracting COVID-19 is the lack of access to water and sanitation. It is clear: those who do not have water to wash their hands and maintain personal hygiene will have difficulty practicing even basic safety measures.
Today, around 3 billion peoplethey lack access to basic hand washing facilities. In the least developed countries, 22% of the sanitary facilities do not have water service, 21% do not have a sanitation service and 22% do not have waste management.
Ensuring access to water means facing a series of interconnected environmental challenges. No less important is the climate crisis, a multiplier of threatswhich will increase the pressure on water resources, as higher temperatures cause an increase in both droughtslike desertificationand threaten mountain glaciers, which are important freshwater reservoirs.
Worse with the climate crisis
Beyond the current crisis, the climate emergency is also causing new risksof infectious diseases, changing its geographical distribution and seasonal behavior. As a result, our ability to predict and prepare for new outbreaks of infectious disease can be weakened.
And the impact will not be the same for everyone. "The sudden consequences of climate change disproportionately affect people with fewer resources, increasing their vulnerability and amplifying the possibilities of spreading zoonotic diseases," explains UN Environment.
Infectious diseases spread in many ways. Two of the mainthey are human-to-human, such as COVID-19, and vector vectors transmitted by other animals, such as mosquitoes and fleas. By changing weather patterns and extreme events, the climate crisis will have an impact on vector diseases, altering the population, scope and survival of the animals that carry them.
Among the most important examples are dengue and malaria, both spread by mosquitoes. Both diseases are enormous public health challenges and their transmission is affected by climatic factors.such as temperature, humidity and rainfall. Malaria killed more than 400,000 peoplein 2018, 67% were children under 5 years old. About half the world's population is at risk of contracting dengue fever and an estimated 100 to 400 million infections occur each year. Although the symptoms are mostly mild, it can develop into a serious illness, requiring medical attention, and is one of the leading causes of hospitalization and death. in Asia and Latin America.
The climate crisis is making conditions more favorable for both. Data dating back to the 1950s shows that 9 of the 10 best years for dengue transmission occurred since 2000. For its part, the climate suitability for malaria transmission in the highlands of Africa for 2012-2107 was 30% higherthan the baseline of the 1950s. Future climate change may make conditions even more suitable for malaria, although such predictions are difficult to make given the complexity.
For human-transmitted diseases, such as COVID-19, the picture is more complicated. The climate crisis does not change the geographic reach of humans as clearly as it does for animals and insects. However, it could play a role in some cases. In the United States, for example, research suggests that warmer winters caused by the climate emergency could bring more severe flu seasons, with the risk that warmer weather could promote sustained transmission, leading to the flu "season" last all year.
By adopting the Paris Agreementin 2015, almost 200 countries pledged to prevent the global mean temperature from rising above 2 ° C from pre-industrial levels by the end of the century and to do everything possible to limit this warming to 1.5 ° C. To do this, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity should be reduced 45% from what they were in 2010 before 2030. Today, we are not on track to achieve this goal, but there is still a window of time (increasingly shorter) to do it.
Today, mitigating and adapting to the climate emergency is more urgent than ever; not only because of the risks of future pandemics that greater global warming could bring, but also because measures to prevent it also contribute to avoiding new health crises. Reducing air pollution by cutting fossil fuels is a tool to improve public health. Phasing out fossil fuels could prevent 3.6 million premature deaths each year only for outdoor air pollution and 5.6 million if it includes pollution from agriculture and households.
This, in turn, can also bring secondary benefits to the water supply. For example, in 2013, the total water consumption of the coal industry was estimated at 22.7 billion cubic meters meters per year, enough to satisfy the most basic water needs of 1.2 billion people. The transition to energy based on sources that need little water, such as wind and solar, as well as the application of energy efficiency, would help limit the climate crisis and water stress .
The day after tomorrow: economic stimuli
The effects of COVID-19 are felt beyond our health and economy. In recent months, with the brake on the unprecedented activity that social distancing measures brought as a consequence, we have witnessed (virtual or face-to-face) cleaner airs and waters, more celestial skies and the return of species, among others. Wonderfully resilient nature shows us that there is not much we need to do (or not do) for it to flourish again.
However, when the crisis subsides, the imperative will be economic recovery. The question is what it will be like, where governments and industries will focus, and if we will learn anything from this pandemic and focus on building a healthier and more equitable world for all. Because, as David Quammen pointed out, if we want to avoid future coronaviruses, we must radically change our production and consumption patterns to reduce our interference from the natural world. As he recently told the BBC"There is no 'natural world', it is a false and artificial phrase. There is a world, and human beings are part of it along with viruses and chimpanzees and bats."
One of the keys here is the multi-million dollar economic stimulus packages that governments are deploying in the face of the pandemic and those that they will deploy to restart the economies of each country and region as the worst of this happens. In a joint statement, the leaders of the European Union pointed out that, after the immediate response to the health crisis and jobs in danger, the economic recovery will take place in accordance with the objectives of its Green Pact, whose objective is to conserve, protect and improve community "natural capital" and protect the health and well-being of its citizens from environmental risks and impacts, all in a "fair and inclusive" spirit.
The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, is also making his voice heardin this aspect. On Earth Day, ask to unite to demand a healthy and resilient future for people and the planet. Since last year I had made a call to end the $ 5.2 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies, that new coal plants are not built and that financial markets go from dirty to clean.
And you are not alone. The Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) Ángel Gurría told the BBCthat "the most important intergenerational responsibility is to preserve the planet" and urged governments to focus on "other struggles that we have to wage". In turn, in a column for The Economist, former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said the climate remains "the big test" for leaders, asking them, after COVID-19, to focus on delivering "a planet fit for our grandchildren to live in. "
Even the G20 Finance Ministers' meeting, which took place last week, focused on the same issue in a joint statement..pdf).
In line with stimuli to mitigate not only the economic crisis but also the post-COVID-19 climate crisis, the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) published a new report showing that the decarbonisation of the energy system it benefits short-term recovery, while creating resilient and inclusive economies and societies. ( Here the full report).
Although the path to deeper decarbonization requires a total energy investment of up to $ 130 billion, the socioeconomic benefits of such investment would be considerable on issues such as employment and economic growth, the report reveals. The world certainly has a chance to get out of COVID-19 in a better way how it treated the planet in pre-pandemic times.
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