Public health preparedness and zoonotic diseases | Pakistan Today

Public health preparedness and zoonotic diseases

  • Both the developing and developed countries were unprepared for the crisis

In a public health policy note of the World Bank Connecting sectors and systems for health results and published in 2012– well before the start of the current pandemic caused by the Coronavirus– in which it was highlighted that there were significant gaps in terms of preparedness for dealing with ‘zoonotic’ diseases– one that is transmitted from animals to humans, like the Coronavirus.

In this regard, the Report highlighted ‘…recent pandemic threats create a vivid reminder of the need to strengthen prevention and preparedness efforts. At the same time, the global landscape is undergoing major shifts including globalization, rapid urbanization, and climate change, all with profound implications for the public health agenda. Perhaps the most far-reaching shift is an epidemiological one, namely the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as the leading cause of death and disability in almost every region– even as many countries still face significant gaps in meeting the health-related MDGs and addressing major zoonotic diseases.’

Yet, such public health preparedness as was called for in this Report, particularly with regard to dealing with zoonotic diseases could not be reached, as is amply evident from the lack of response capacity of both developed and developing countries in the relative sense, that is, whereby developing countries a lot more than developed, but developed countries also lacking the appropriate level of response needed. At the same time, as the global agenda of discussion revolved around avoiding another financial crisis of the likes of Global Financial Crisis 2008, and trade wars between major nations, especially the USA and China, the same efforts were not made to reach policy measures at a global level that could avoid transmitting of diseases from animals to humans, and that uplifted the level of preparedness to meet the challenge of a pandemic, especially similar to one with a large scale of Coronavirus.

Most infectious diseases that recently emerged in humans originated in animals. Besides close contact between animals and humans, other factors probably contribute to the cross-species transmission of infectious diseases. It is critical to establish effective mechanisms for coordination and collaboration between the animal, human, and environmental health sectors before new threats emerge by bringing the different sectors together to tackle endemic zoonotic diseases of greatest concern

According to the research article Coronavirus: a paradigm of new emerging zoonotic diseases, published in February 2019, COVID-19 is ‘a novel type of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infecting humans appeared in Wuhan, China, at the end of December 2019… Molecular analysis suggest that 2019-nCoV could be originated from bats after passaging in intermediate hosts, highlighting the high zoonotic potential of coronaviruses [CoVs].’

The important aspect to realize is the lack of effort by policy makers to boost health sector preparedness– more so in developing countries than developed ones, although the latter too are far from being properly prepared– although the serious of the challenge at hand to public health with regard to coronaviruses was quite evident for roughly two decades now, as highlighted by the paper ‘Until 2002, CoVs were considered minor pathogens for humans, generally associated with the common cold or mild respiratory infections in immunocompetent people, with rare exceptions represented by severe infections in infants, young children and elder people (Channappanavar and Perlman 2017). This concept completely changed with the emergence of a highly pathogenic zoonotic disease, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by the SARS-CoV.’

Later on MERS also spread, about which the paper highlights ‘A total of 10 years after the onset of SARS outbreak a new coronavirus jumped from animals to humans causing the lethal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) (WHO 2020b). The new emerging disease was first identified in humans in 2012 and interested mainly the Kingdom of South Arabia with the majority of reported cases (Zaki et al.2012). In comparison to SARS, MERS is still active and sporadic outbreaks have been reported until now. This respiratory disease is particularly severe, accounting for 2465 cases confirmed by laboratory analyses, with a fatal rate of 35% (de Wit et al.2016; WHO 2020b). Epidemiological studies have suggested that MERS is due to a CoV transmitted by the contact with dromedary camels or camel products (Chan et al.2015).’ Given the importance of CoVs for humanity and the likelihood that it could possibly pose a greater challenge like in the wake it now has through COVID-19, public health could sadly not be prepared anywhere near to where it should have been.

The way to prepare better in terms of dealing with zoonotic diseases was provided in research, for instance the paper published in December 2017, and titled Zoonotic disease programs for enhancing global health security pointed out ‘Most infectious diseases that recently emerged in humans originated in animals. Besides close contact between animals and humans, other factors probably contribute to the cross-species transmission of infectious diseases. It is critical to establish effective mechanisms for coordination and collaboration between the animal, human, and environmental health sectors before new threats emerge by bringing the different sectors together to tackle endemic zoonotic diseases of greatest concern. Such multisectoral partnerships should begin by identifying priority zoonotic diseases for national engagement with equal input from the different sectors. Improvements in surveillance and data sharing for prioritized zoonotic diseases and enhancements of laboratory testing and joint outbreak response capacities in the human and animal health sectors will create and strengthen the mechanisms necessary to effectively detect and respond to emerging health threats, and thereby enhance global health security.’

Going forward, it is hoped that better approaches on the lines above, will be used by public sector policymakers everywhere to prevent zoonotic diseases and to deal with them effectively, especially the CoVs, given the potential they have to spread at the global level, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Omer Javed

The writer holds PhD in Economics degree from the University of Barcelona, and previously worked at International Monetary Fund. He tweets @omerjaved



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