Throughout human history, the main determinant separating humans from other species has been our ability to adapt the environment to address our needs. Whether harnessing fire to stay warm in cold temperatures, inventing the wheel to transport things long distances or utilizing the earth’s magnetic field to guide navigation, humans have made advancements that make it easier for us to live. But what happens when we overstep and go too far?
Since the 1980s there has been a “steep rise in the number of outbreaks globally.” A Brown University study found that between the years 1980 and 2014, there were more than 12,000 infection outbreaks affecting 44 million people around the world. In order to stop disease outbreaks from becoming more and more common, human society needs to drastically rethink how it interacts with nature.
One of the forces driving the increasing number of infectious outbreaks is how land is used. It is estimated that humans have changed 75% of all land globally. What that looks like depends on the region. It could mean urbanization and suburban sprawl or deforestation and mining, all of which make outbreaks more likely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that three out of every four new diseases begin with animals. These are called zoonotic diseases — scientists believe there are more than 1.7 million undiscovered zoonotic viruses, of which roughly half are predicted to be able to infect humans.
Changes to the land bring humans and animals closer together. Deforestation and other land-use changes are responsible for about one-third of new diseases. As habitats are destroyed for thousands of species, they are forced to migrate into new ecosystems, potentially disrupting the food chain or being exposed to new toxins. Eventually, they come in contact with humans, increasing the risk of a zoonotic disease outbreak amongst people. An example of this is the origins of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea. One of the first people to contract Ebola was a little boy playing under a tree where a large number of bats had begun to live. Bats do not like living near humans — they had been forced out of their homes by forest clearing and mining done by foreign companies.
Urbanization contributes to the spread of disease by concentrating 4 billion people globally into small areas, sometimes living in very unclean conditions. As the world becomes increasingly urban and more people move to cities, it presents the perfect opportunity for diseases to reach the level of an outbreak.
Suburban areas pose a different threat to public health. Since the 1970s, Lyme disease has affected the Northeast United States. Lyme disease is caused by ticks feeding on white-footed mice where they become infected and then transfer the bacteria to humans. When people started moving out of cities and the suburbs began to expand, formerly forest and agricultural land was repurposed. This disrupted the ecosystem and harmed predators of the white-footed mouse, allowing the mice to grow their population and thereby increasing the frequency of Lyme disease.
Another contributor to the increase of infectious diseases is climate change. Like many things, climate change seems to just exacerbate existing problems, making them more harmful and harder to solve. As climate change leads to hotter and wetter climates, the spread of infectious diseases becomes easier. Infections that are transmitted through water, food, mosquitos and ticks are transmitted more easily in warmer and wetter climates. Studies have found that diseases such as dengue, malaria and cholera have already become more contagious with the changing climate. Warmer temperatures also are forcing thousands of species to migrate from areas they had lived in for centuries. The migration of these species brings them closer to humans, which again contributes to the spread of disease.
While these changes are scary, the good thing is that there are actions humans can take. One major step is to stop deforestation. This would help keep many habitats intact, and in turn prevent species from being forced to migrate. Additionally, millions of people around the world call forests their home. Forests also help to reduce carbon in the atmosphere — absorbing more carbon than the U.S. emits every year — which helps mitigate climate change and therefore helps limit the spread of infectious diseases.
Another thing that humans can do is to adopt the One Health approach to governing. This plan looks at humans, animals, plants and their common environment holistically. When using a lens that assumes we are all part of nature, we are all unhealthy when one part is unhealthy. By designing policies and programs that place the health of everything into consideration, it will result in a healthier public. This approach, comprised of thorough policy proposals rooted in research, can be used in environmental regulations to ensure air and water quality are not making anyone sick.
Urban planning can also use this to design cities in a way that will best decrease opportunities for diseases to spread. Lastly, the One Health approach can be used for epidemiology. Unhealthy environments can cause asthma or other respiratory issues, and sick animals have caused Ebola, Lyme disease, Zika and plenty of other infectious diseases. Looking at public health through a holistic lens will allow us to identify and address many of the factors that contribute to human illness and sickness.
Something important to mention about outbreak prevention is that it looks different everywhere. A region’s development, population, culture, climate and countless other factors will influence how people decide to approach fending off disease outbreaks. In Thailand, for example, this took the form of an app. Residents use the app to send pictures of any animals or plants that look suspicious to public health officials and scientists who are then made aware of diseases and can research or contain them before they become outbreaks.
Officials estimate that preventing the next pandemic will cost around $22 billion per year. While this is a large amount, it is irresponsible not to consider, given that the economic costs of COVID-19 are predicted to be upwards of $10 trillion. Investing in pandemic prevention is not only the smart thing to do because it will save lives, but it is the economically smart decision too. COVID-19 has shown us that we must put an emphasis on public health and need to be adequately funded and address infectious disease prevention. We cannot forget that we live within nature and are not immune to nature’s consequences.
Alex Nobel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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