Lessons from COVID-19: Rethinking our relationship with animals

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FILE – In this Aug. 26, 2019 file photo, Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District biologist Nadja Reissen examines a mosquito in Salt Lake City. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it has no data to suggest the coronavirus is spread by either mosquitoes or ticks. COVID-19 is mainly spread from person to person through droplets people spray when they talk, cough or sneeze. And the World Health Organization says a mosquito bite won’t give you the virus. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“Stay 6 feet apart. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.” These instructions-turned-mantras have reverberated across the globe and changed the way many people think about diseases, how they are transmitted and what one can do to prevent getting sick. While society’s new way of looking at sick people—asking that they stay home and recover rather than push through at work or school and infect others—is helpful, we must also extend principles of prevention outward, focusing not only on humans, but also animals from whom many human infectious diseases originate. 

Zoonotic diseases, or illnesses spread from animals to humans, are caused by germs such as viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that “more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals”. Scientists claim that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had a zoonotic source. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the virus most likely mutated in a bat, spread to an intermediate host infrequent contact with humans and spread it to our species. 

“more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals”

The threat of zoonotic disease has risen astronomically due to globalization and animals being transported long distances by the food industry. As a response to these risks, scientists are increasingly adopting a One Health Perspective, which studies the health of humans in the context of animal health and environmental health. Building networks and monetary support for endeavors that combine a multitude of disciplines, such as epidemiology, public health, biology, chemistry and veterinary medicine, is crucial to making vast strides that will help us adapt to meet the challenges posed by zoonotic diseases and our increased risk for pandemics. 

In addition to funding research utilizing the One Health Perspective, it is essential that countries across the world, especially where citizens may not have access to public health education, promote safe farming practices. The CDC spearheaded the creation of the One Health Zoonotic Disease Prioritization tool, which helps “countries with limited resources focus their most urgent global health security efforts” . They have supported 17 workshops around the world, helping countries determine which zoonotic diseases pose the greatest threat to human health and developing strategies to combat them. Efforts such as these not only protect the health of people in one region, but also health on a global scale because the ease at which a disease can spread has risen within our modernized world. 

Farming practices in America also require modification and a fundamental shift in thinking. Due to the rise of factory farming, animals such as chickens and pigs are held in close proximity to each other under unsanitary conditions with no consideration for the resulting emotional impact. Ethical considerations aside, increased stress lowers their immune systems, which causes more disease to crop up and spread easily due to the high concentration of animals in these farms. More instances of disease allows for more chances for a virus to mutate into a deadly threat to human health, while the long-distance transport of these animals to markets increases the opportunities for germs to reach a pandemic scale. In addition, factory farmers often treat animals with antibiotics if they show any signs of disease without determining if they really need them. This increases the risk of bacteria developing antibiotic resistance, which would render our defenses against them useless. While the demand for meat rises each dayas our population grows in number and hunger, developing sustainable farming practices is not optional. The COVID-19 pandemic could just as easily have been an avian flu pandemic. If we do not change our mindset regarding how we interact with animals, perhaps it will be next time. 

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