THE international community heaved a collective sigh of relief when, on Jan 26, China announced a ban, albeit a temporary one, on wildlife trade in an effort to contain the 2019-nCoV coronavirus.
Yet the plaudits for China’s move are marred by the fact that until the announcement was made, the outrage and vitriol directed at China by the media and international community smacked of double standards, hypocrisy, racial malice, and schadenfreude.
If the international community is really so concerned about wildlife conservation and biodiversity, we would see the same level of outrage over fox hunting in Britain, the United States’ trophy hunting industry, the systematic hunting of minke whales by Norway, Australia’s kangaroo meat industry, and Canada’s annual slaughter of seals and sea lions. Yet for the most part, these countries have been able to carry on exploiting and killing wildlife with relative impunity, and these activities are passed off as being civilised, sophisticated, or an economic or environmental necessity.
It would be neat and convenient indeed if the blame for the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak could be placed squarely on Wuhan’s wildlife markets. However, scientists are still struggling to pinpoint the original host of the virus and how it first infected people. The premature identification of snakes and bats as the original hosts shows us how truly novel this coronavirus is and how little we know about it – and, indeed, about other zoonotic diseases. Until today, the scientific and medical community have yet to be able to confirm that Ebola originated from bats.
Following China’s official announcement linking the virus to Wuhan’s wildlife markets, social media was rife with comments such as “Why can’t they just be civilised and eat domestic farmed animals like the rest of us?”; “Serves them right for eating endangered animals instead of animals raised for food!”; and even “Eat more chicken and beef!”; as if eating farmed meat could miraculously inoculate humans against zoonotic diseases.
History has shown us repeatedly that not only does eating farmed meat not inoculate humans against diseases, but that intensive animal agriculture is a major driver of zoonosis and disease outbreaks.
If zoonotic diseases such as SARS, Ebola, West Nile virus, Nipah virus, avian influenza, and 2019-nCoV were merely transmitted to those who directly handle and consume wildlife, they would not have had the pandemic effects that they did. But wildlife diseases can and do afflict domestic animals, and they cross species to humans with alarming rapidity. Farm animals frequently become intermediate or amplifier hosts for pathogens.
Researchers, including those from the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University in the United States, estimate that 70% of zoonotic diseases come from wildlife and then make the leap to humans. Deforestation and human encroachment into previously forested areas have been identified as factors in the spread of zoonosis, as farm and domestic animals come into contact with wildlife. The crowded and unhealthy conditions in factory farms then expedite the spread of viruses such as avian influenza and bacterial pathogens such as E. coli, Campylobacter and salmonella.
The Japanese encephalitis virus, for instance, was transmitted by the Culex mosquito (which usually feeds on wild birds and mammals) to farmed pigs, which became carriers for the virus and then amplified these infections in humans. The Nipah virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted their virus to farmed pigs via fruit contaminated with bat saliva or urine.
In the case of the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia, there was no evidence of direct transmission from bats to humans, and almost all the human cases had direct contact with infected pigs. Clearly abstinence from hunting, poaching and wildlife products made no difference at all in the case of the Nipah virus.
Intensive animal farming is usually characterised by high animal population density and low genetic diversity, both of which are factors that promote increased pathogen transmission and adaptation.
Farmed poultry live in conditions that suppress their immunity and make them more susceptible to infections. The avian influenza virus is reported to be “subclinical or of low pathogenicity in wild birds”, yet become highly pathogenic when transmitted to domestic poultry. A 2010 study published in the Veterinary Record journal reports that a large-scale British survey found that battery-cage poultry farms are six times more likely than cage-free farms to be infected with the strain of salmonella most commonly associated with food poisoning.
The risk of zoonotic diseases must be managed through improvement in farm animal welfare standards as well as disease management and control measures.
These can include mitigating measures such as:
> Using slower-growing animal breeds;
> Creating diets and management conditions that minimise stress on animals;
> Increasing surveillance and vaccination to monitor and minimise the spread of disease;
> Limiting live animal transportation time to reduce stress and cruelty;
> Investing more in research and knowledge transfer to improve farm animal health and welfare standards;
> Reducing non-therapeutic antibiotic use to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance;
> Encouraging consumers to eat less meat or replace conventional meat products with higher welfare animal products such as grass-fed beef or free-range or certified humanely raised poultry.
At an institutional level, those with political and economic leverage must disallow deforestation and the expansion of agricultural activities into forested areas to minimise wildlife-to-domestic-animal and animal-to-human viral spillover.
They must also look into:
> Tightening biosecurity controls in farms and places that process animal products;
> Improving animal health and welfare standards;
> Replacing factory farming systems with more humane and sustainable systems;
> Setting restrictions and guidelines on the transportation of livestock and poultry
> Removing barriers and creating incentives for the development, production and consumption of plant-based foods and lab-grown meat to replace, and eventually phase out, conventionally-produced farmed meat.
On a personal level, we can reduce and mitigate the risk of zoonotic diseases and infections by choosing a plant-based diet and limiting our exposure to wildlife, which should remain wild and protected against unnecessary human contact.
WONG EE LYNN , Petaling Jaya
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