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Why do so many epidemics originate in Asia and Africa - and why can we expect more such epidemics in the future?

The coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 is a frightening reminder of the looming global threat posed by the spread of infectious diseases. Although plagues have occurred throughout human history, they now appear to be on the rise

By: Shork Kuchipudi, Clinical Professor and Associate Director of the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University

Famine farming in Ethiopia. Photo: Image by D Mz from Pixabay
Famine farming in Ethiopia. Photography: Image by D Mz from Pixabay

The coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 is a frightening reminder of the looming global threat posed by the spread of infectious diseases. Although plagues have occurred throughout human history, they now appear to be on the rise. In the last twenty years alone, coronaviruses alone have caused three major outbreaks worldwide. A statistic that is even more disturbing is that the time between these three epidemics has been getting shorter.

I am a virologist and associate director of the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Penn State University, and my lab studies zoonotic viruses, those that are transmitted from animals and infect humans. Most epidemics have at least one thing in common: they began their deadly activity in Asia or Africa.

Population explosion and changing urban landscapes

Unprecedented change in the human population is one reason why most diseases originate in Asia and Africa. Rapid urbanization is occurring throughout Asia and the Pacific Ocean, where 60% of the world's population already lives. According to the World Bank, nearly 200 million people moved to urban areas in East Asia during the first decade of the 21st century. To put that into perspective, 200 million people could make up the eighth most populous country in the world.
Migration on this scale means deforestation to create residential neighborhoods. Wild animals, which are forced to approach cities and towns and inevitably encounter domestic animals and the human population. Wild animals often carry viruses; Bats, for example, can carry hundreds of them. Viruses also pass from species to species, and can eventually infect humans.

Ultimately, extreme urbanization becomes a vicious cycle: more people lead to more deforestation, and human expansion and habitat loss eventually wipe out predators, including those that feed on rodents. When the predators disappear - or at least when their numbers drop sharply - the rodent population explodes, and as studies in Africa show, so does the risk of zoonotic diseases.

The situation is only expected to get worse. A significant part of the East Asian population still lives in rural areas. Urbanization is expected to last for decades.

Agricultural farms designed to sustain the people who operate them, and animal markets

Tropical regions, which are rich in biological diversity, contain many species of animals that also hold a large reservoir of pathogens, which greatly increases the chance of developing a new pathogen. The farming system throughout Africa and Asia does not help to deal with the problem.

In both continents, many families depend on agriculture for their immediate existence, and on a small supply of animals. Disease control, food supplements and housing for those animals is extremely limited. Cattle, chickens and pigs, which may suffer from endemic disease, are often in close contact with each other, wildlife and humans.

And not just on farms: animal markets, common throughout Asia and Africa, involve crowded conditions and an intimate mix of multiple species, including humans. This too plays a key role in how a pathogen may emerge and spread between species.

Another risk: hunting and butchering game meat, which is especially common in sub-Saharan Africa. These activities threaten animal species and irreversibly change ecosystems, and they also bring people and wild animals together. Game meat is a clear and primary route for the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

This is also the case with traditional Chinese medicine, which claims to provide cures for a host of conditions such as arthritis, epilepsy and sexual dysfunction. Although there is no scientific evidence to support most of the claims, Asia is a huge consumer of traditional Chinese medicine products. Tigers, bears, rhinos, pangolins and other species of animals are killed so that their body parts can be mixed with these dubious drugs. This is also a major contributor to increasing interactions between animals and humans. Furthermore, demand is likely to rise as online marketing grows along with relentless economic growth in Asia.

matter of time

Thousands of such viruses continue to evolve. It is only a matter of time before another major eruption occurs in this area of ​​the world. All of the coronaviruses that have caused recent pandemics, including COVID-19, jumped from bats to another animal before infecting humans. It is difficult to predict precisely which sequence of events causes an epidemic, but one thing is certain: these risks can be mitigated by developing strategies to minimize the human impacts that contribute to ecological disturbances.

As the current outbreak has demonstrated, an infectious disease that starts in one part of the world can spread around the world in a very short period of time. There is an urgent need for constructive conservation strategies to prevent deforestation and reduce interactions between humans and wildlife, and the establishment of a comprehensive global surveillance system to monitor the emergence of these diseases - which are currently lacking - would be an essential tool to help us fight these deadly and terrifying epidemics.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

13 תגובות

  1. There are too many people who raise too many animals for food: cows, sheep, pigs, poultry, and even as pets. Nature collapses…

  2. Excellent article, short and to the point. I have an English version, I live in New York and it seems to me that there are many people here who were interested in reading, understanding and thinking about the content of the article, to realize that ecology, human health, the balance of flora and fauna are a whole and that the core of the crisis is not the corona but only its symptom.

  3. I also believe that monotheistic religions for all the suffering they have caused, in the laws of eating and purification, the rules developed 3,500 years ago in this field are still valid today. In fact, if we take the rules of kashrut and purification, with all the mocking of the primitiveness of the religion - they are tailored to avoid today's epidemic and as if they were written by today's doctor.

    Another rule used by the prophets - who are preachers of socialist reform in society - is to do a national soul-searching, in our case and to rise above the moments when our behavior seems justified and there is local prosperity (for example Isaiah during the prosperity days of King Uzziah his cousin preached in a prosperous environment when no one understood what he was complaining about, about The injustices of society, which in their foundation sowed the seed of destruction in the first political crisis) - for example, on the way we behave towards animals and towards nature.

    And of course science and medicine: those who don't help themselves, as religious people usually say, don't do their best, don't develop a vaccine or medicine, won't expect heaven to help them for nothing.

    But along with that, the humility to take stock as an atheist or a monotheist - is our behavior as an abundant society towards nature correct.

  4. Hygiene is required in eating such foods as defined for these and other reasons
    In Judaism, however, there is no preaching to Judaism here, but only an example of the rules that existed for about 3,500 years when they did not understand medicine and did not know what bacteria and viruses were, and it seems that they apply well today:
    Washing hands
    For those who eat meat - salting it, meaning drying it from liquids, disinfecting it
    Not to eat any animal (I'm personally a vegetarian, but it's practical to understand that I can't recommend this to everyone) - eat from a limited subgroup.
    Do not eat game animals.
    Sterilization - bathing
    A world-class soul-searching about the way we use the planet's resources without being accountable.
    International cooperation in the development of a vaccine, drugs for the virus - knowledge sharing agreements - whoever develops a vaccine - is allowed to sell it, but must sell it.

  5. It is not clear why commenters feel
    need to wave in their ignorance,
    Hakel Tafhin - an idle fool,
    Or - "Expert Ltd",
    Moshe - "wise",
    It's a shame that this is how the article is treated
    Even if the idea is not perfect
    And not always true.

  6. Nonsensical research. In practice, you see that these countries behave like the animals of the field, whether it is by eating those animals while they are alive, or by causing them to die (AIDS). The civilized humanity that preserves the biblical monotheistic religion is preserved much more, despite population density and deforestation.

  7. At the exit of the straits, God gave the people of Israel, but exterminating plagues also to destroy houses, the inspection of a high priest to the people of Yarhab, the settlement of Israel, Asheram Israel

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