Mankind’s Struggle Against Zoonotic Diseases….a self fulfilling prophecy

wet market

As we make virtue out of necessity by celebrating Earth Day, Environment Day, Water Day….a pandemic like Covid-19 only debunks our claims to protect and respect nature. In the course of evolution, as we graduated from animal kingdom to human kingdom and exerted our dominance fueled and fooled by our belief of superiority and arrogance about our superior intelligence, the rivalry has since become severe, and has often boomeranged and jeopardized our very own existence.

As E.F.Schumacker, remarks,” Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it…”. Historically, deadly epidemics have challenged us, their occurrence and reoccurrence exposing our doomed relationship with other living inhabitants of the biosphere.

The advent of settled life made the spread of diseases easier, our meat eating culture amplified it, and globalization upsurged it. The disease history of mankind, boasts of ample proof that most epidemics had Zoonotic origins. Plague, the first known pandemic, spread by rats and fleas, can be traced back to as early as 430 B.C. Athens, and has since resurfaced many times, the latest being in 2019, China. The pandemics that followed, remind us of our fragile existence and continuous conflict with nature-Cholera, Spanish Flu, Asian Flu, Leprosy, Small Pox, Fiji Measles, rendered millions dead, thousands permanently disabled and destroyed economies across the globe, challenging our supremacy claim.

In words of British Naturalist, Charles Darwin,” It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent but the most responsive to change”. Darwin’s prophecy of – Survival of the fittest has turned true not only for humans, who evolved with bigger-better brains, but also for pathogens who prevailed with mutations, emerging as equal players in the fight for survival.

The massive boom in our population to 6 billion from a mere 1.6 billion, in a span of 100 years (1900to 2000), further escalated the exploitation of other living organisms. China, which was worst affected by population explosion, suffered recurring famines and insufficient food grain production resulting in excessive wildlife hunting, bushmeat consumption culture and rampant deforestation to make space for rising population, thus turning into a hotspot for pandemic outbreaks. Studies suggest, not only Asian Flu, SARS, Hong Kong Flu originated from China, even the deadliest of all, Plague and Spanish Flu which ravaged the entire world had their roots in China. China’s infamous wet markets or rather wild life markets are potential breeding grounds for new viruses and random mutations, with neglected sanitation, missing food security regulations and closely stacked animals. More so, China’s fascination for Traditional medicine, is also equally responsible for ramping up illegal wild life trade.

Our incursions into animal habitats have been responsible for deadlier diseases like HIV/AIDS, originating from our closest primate cousins, first identified in 1981, has resulted in 39 million deaths till 2013, according to WHO, millions living with the infection still await vaccine or medical cure. Another zoonotic disease, Ebola, discovered in 1976, still continues to haunt us, making it imperative to upend our profound contact with nature.

Overtime, there has been a rise in zoonotic diseases. According to a WHO report,75% of emerging human disease are zoonotic in origin. The pathogens have not only become more virulent and adaptable but involve new animal hosts each time. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), originated from camels and started in hot climatic conditions of Saudi Arabia, shattering the myth of safer climates.

In recent times albeit, our encounters with pestilence have been a result of our own suicidal behaviour. As scientists still grapple with the Wuhan lab leak theory, manipulation with viruses in the lab resulting in lab leaks have happened in the past and will possibly happen in future as well.

Smallpox virus, leaked twice after eradication, firstly in 1972 from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and second time from Birmingham Medical School in 1978, both times due to human error. The first lab leak of SARS happened in August 2003, from a virology lab in Singapore, the second incident occurred in Taiwan in December in the same year.

Many scientists claim that, the 1977 H1N1 Influenza pandemic was also a result of lab leak, though it was never publicized. Brucellosis, outbreak in China in 2019, occurred due to the use of expired disinfectants at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute, infecting thousands in a single outbreak, probably Covid-19 also has a similar story.

As humans we prefer to evade the bitter truth, why else would we spend millions on inventing anti-biotics and vaccines to compete and outsmart nature, when the solution lies in eliminating them completely, with intelligent food choices, sustainable agricultural practices, population control and most importantly to overcome our self -regarding and subjugating attitudes. The ongoing pandemic is a wakeup call to mend our   relationship with other habitats and to accept their essential existence.

Dr. Harleen Shergill, Ph.D. Economics, Free-lance researcher and author.




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