M'sia a regional leader in dealing with Covid-19, zoonosis, say scientists

  • Nation
  • Friday, 15 May 2020

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia's success in the fight against Covid-19 is connected to its history of fighting zoonotic diseases such as the Nipah virus in the 90s, say scientists.

In an article that appeared in The World, Tom Hughes, a scientist with EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia, said the country only had about 200 cases per million people, putting it just behind South Korea.

"Just looking at how Malaysia is responding to Covid-19 and how well we are doing to maintain the spread of this virus, they're doing an amazing job to keep the public informed, and it really shows just how well Malaysia has embraced these kinds of ideas.

"Malaysia is really showing itself as a regional leader in dealing with zoonosis," Hughes was quoted saying.

He said South-East Asia was home to many research efforts on zoonotic disease transmission as countries in tropical climates were more prone to the emergence of these diseases.

"You've got high population densities. Lots of natural, pristine environments with high wildlife biodiversity.

"But, at the same time, you have a huge amount of pressure to expand our urban environment and expand our agricultural areas, which is what is causing these viruses to spill over.

"In the United States and the United Kingdom and Europe, most of our development happened decades and centuries ago, whereas this sort of development is happening right now in the tropics," said Hughes.

He said it was the responsibility of wealthier nations to fund zoonotic disease research in tropical countries "because, as Covid-19 has demonstrated, we are all one."

Steve Unwin, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said "zoonosis, or zoonotic diseases, are diseases that can spread between human and non-human animals."

Unwin said about 75% of new and emerging diseases came from animals, adding that this number should not surprise people.

"Approximately 75%-80% of the terrestrial landmass has been altered in some way by human activity.

"So, this activity has brought humans in closer contact with non-human animals.

"If we consider that humans are just another animal, it kind of makes perfect sense that diseases can go backward and forward," he said.

According to Unwin, zoonosis was a two-way street.

"When people expose animals in the wild to human diseases, that gives viruses a new host species to thrive in. These viruses can become much stronger."

Unwin said if humans continued to treat other creatures on the planet as "something lesser than ourselves, then we do so at our peril" as we're all part of the same ecosystem and environment.

Unwin and Hughes are part of a movement called,"One Health", which brings veterinary scientists, epidemiologists, public health officials, economists and ecologists together with the goal of coordinating their efforts to fight zoonotic disease outbreaks early.

Malaysia, said Hughes, adopted the "One Health" concept much earlier and had used that to control the Nipah virus.

He said several government agencies collaborated "to break the transmission chain to understand where the virus came from."

The concept of "One Health" was a simple one but people struggled with it, he said.

"The idea is if we want to have healthy people, we need to have a healthy environment, healthy livestock and healthy wildlife.

"We are all interconnected," Hughes said.

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