How to prevent future pandemics: the one thing we must do

How to prevent future pandemics: the one thing we must do

Three out of every four emerging infectious diseases come from an animal source. There are hundreds of thousands of pathogens out there that could spill over as the next pandemic. To know how to prevent future pandemics, we must understand how inextricable our use of animals is from the emergence of major past and present pandemics.  

Animal use causes our major pandemics

Science author Jared Diamond wrote, “The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history—smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera—are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals.” Indeed, measles came from cattle, smallpox is thought to have been transmitted to humans by camels, and HIV/AIDS came from chimpanzees.

The 1918 influenza originated from pigs and chickens, the 1957 Asian flu came from ducks and chickens, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 spread from chickens. In 1997, H5N1 also emerged from chicken farms in China. This virus kills 50% of people it infects. Although it is limited by being very difficulty to transmit from human to human, it is still circulating.  

In 2002, SARS emerged from bats. In 2009, the swine flu pandemic spread from pigs. Of course, COVID-19 had animal-based origins too, likely originating in wet markets in China. Although public attention has often pointed the finger to the East, the West is equally to blame for the increasing risk of pandemics. All of our abuses of animals are responsible for increasing risk of zoonotic diseases, including animal agriculture, wildlife destruction for cropland used to grow livestock feed, and the wildlife trade.

Industrial animal agriculture

Every step in the production of animals for food causes disease. Firstly, those who work on and live near farms have higher rates of respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal ailments, and skin and wound infections. In the slaughterhouses, workers are under pressure to move quickly and often cut into the intestines, splashing feces on the worker and on the flesh. Once the meat reaches the consumer, pathogens contaminate much of the meat. One study published in the Journal of Infectious Disease found E.coli present in 92% of chicken and in 60-70% of beef and pork in supermarket samples.

In stark contrast to the social distancing measures we have taken during COVID-19, factory farms, wet markets and the like do the opposite. Factory farms pack animals in extremely crowded, unhygienic conditions. In these stressful conditions, animals’ immune systems are weakened, and viruses spread like wildfire. The demand for cheap meat drives these conditions that disregard animal welfare and squander our essential antibiotics.

Habitat destruction and biodiversity loss

Ironically, many people are concerned for wildlife but are unaware that the production of animal products requires the destruction of habitats to produce their animal feed. Furthermore, when we destroy animals’ habitats, we increase the risk that we will come into contact with their infectious diseases.

According to Professor Andrew Cunningham, professor of Wildlife Epidemiology featured in the documentary The End of Medicine, “The more biodiversity diversity you have, generally, the less likely there is to be a zoonotic disease emergence. Because the diversity of life, the mosaic of species, prevents any one pathogen from building up in large amounts. So as we reduce biodiversity, we increase the chances of zoonotic emergence.”

We have already had zoonotic disease emerge as a result of habitat destruction. For instance, HIV and Ebola were carried by nonhuman primates. Humans came into close contact with them because of the bush meat trade and the logging industry’s destruction of their homes. Studies have also revealed how destroying forests has led to an increase in malaria in Borneo and Brazil and an increase in the Zika virus in Uganda.

Wildlife trade

A less well-known factor in the transmission of zoonotic disease is the wildlife trade. As Dr. Aysha Akhtar, CEO of the Center for Contemporary Sciences, observes, “Every country is involved in the wildlife trade that leads wet markets, to animals being shipped around the globe, captured from the wild, used in circuses, used to stock zoos, used for lab experiments, used as medicinal objects, used for their fur and their skin and their meat. And the US [and Europe] [are] one of the biggest importers and exporters of wildlife. We are exposing ourselves to animals, we’re treating them horribly, their immune systems are down so they can very easily catch diseases. The wildlife trade brings together a lot of sick animals, species that normally would not interact with each other.”

Small-scale farming is part of the problem

Many people erroneously believe that buying local meat from small farms will solve the issue. Yet there are several issues with this argument.

Continued zoonotic diseases

Firstly, serious zoonotic diseases can emerge from poorly-equipped small farms. Former livestock veterinarian and whistleblower Dr. Alice Brough says in The End of Medicine, “[Small-scale farms] are not really what people like to imagine. Probably some of the worst concoctions of disease I’ve ever seen have been on small farms because they don’t have the income to afford comprehensive diagnostic testing [and] preventative healthcare. Part of the reason why African swine fever ripped through China in the way that it has is because there were so many backyard farmers… It’s almost impossible to regulate huge numbers of small farms.”

Not enough land

Secondly, Dr. Brough says, meeting the current demand for animal products with small farms would require “about 12 planets…Clearing land for livestock grazing and feed cropping is the number one driver of deforestation worldwide. Feeding the current demand for animal products with many smaller farms would increase that land use.”

A classist, colonialist argument

Thirdly, as Dr. Saliesh Rao, Executive Director of Climate Healers, explains, this is an unjust line of reasoning. He says the argument is basically, “The problem is not that we are eating animal foods; the problem is that the riffraff are eating animal foods… if you can make the poor people stop eating animal foods, there will be plenty for the rich people. So it is a very classist, colonialist argument to make.”

Future pandemics are set to be much worse than COVID-19

As Brough warns, “Potential pathogens for pandemics in the future have much, much higher mortality rates [than COVID-19]. The CDC have tipped the next pandemic as an avian influenza, which has a mortality rate of 40%. It’s a horrifying thought, but it’s a very real possibility. The more that we’re creating these scenarios in which viruses can mutate that way, there is a very real risk of something much worse than COVID-19 happening. We only need to look at pandemics from the past to know this.” Already, there are eight new types of deadly avian flu circulating in factory farms around the world. Each has the potential to be worse than COVID-19.

The solution is vegan

There is one simple change we can make to help prevent future pandemics: transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. A vegan lifestyle encompasses moving away from the use of animals for all exploitative purposes, including food, clothing, and entertainment.

Professor Andrew Cunningham says it like it is: “We should all be vegan. Solve the problem straight off. If everyone was vegan, we could release billions of hectares of land for wildlife because we wouldn’t need that land to grow land to feed animals to feed us because that’s the most inefficient way of growing food. If we just ate what we grew that would be there would be plentiful supplies of food on the planet… You know, it’s contentious to say that, but that’s where the science tells us we have to go if we’re going to survive on this planet as a human race.”

Nature is sending a crystal-clear message to humanity: when we mistreat animals, we will pay the price. As an advisor to the Waterkeeper Alliance, Rick Dove, warned, “There are two sets of laws…that control human behavior. One is the laws that we make… but nature has its own set of laws. And when you violate those laws, nature responds with a consequence all of its own.” Simply put: treating animals badly leads to bad outcomes for us.

We must transform ourselves to transform the world. Preventing future pandemics begins with your next meal.

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