27 December is the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness, held for the first time in 2020, as the world was grappling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the global community turns its attention to how best prevent and prepare for future epidemics, environmental considerations shall not be forgotten. Find out why taking the environment into account is essential to avoid future outbreaks in this update.
International Day of Epidemic Preparedness
As exemplified by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, major infectious diseases and epidemics have devastating impacts on human lives, wreaking havoc on long-term social and economic development. As the world grappled with the pandemic and its consequence, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in November 2020 to declare the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness, to be held each year on 27 December. The day aims to raise awareness, the exchange of information, scientific knowledge and best practices, quality education, and advocacy programmes on epidemics at the local, national, regional and global levels as effective measures to prevent and respond to epidemics.
Preparing our societies to better face future pandemic means building resilient and robust health systems which can reach everyone including the most vulnerable people, sharing and applying lessons learnt on epidemic management, and strengthening international cooperation and multilateralism on health concerns. It also means that we need to adopt a broader understanding of epidemics and the deep connections between our health and that of our environment. Indeed, the rise of zoonoses – diseases passed from animals to humans – is linked to the destruction of wild habitats and other human activities. The International Day of Epidemic Preparedness is thus also the day where we remind ourselves of our interdependence with nature, and how living in harmony with nature can help us prevent future disease outbreaks.
Lessons from COVID
Although COVID-19 has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all zoonotic diseases, its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities. Habitat degradation, illegal wildlife trade, and intensive livestock farming are increasing and modifying interactions between animals and humans and thus play a role in the outbreak of epidemics. Research on the origins of the COVID outbreak highlights the pivotal role that we play in creating opportunities for pathogens to leap from animals to humans.
With all of these events, nature is sending us a message. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. Our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss. We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.
Inger Andersen, Executive Officer, UN Environment Programme. 25 March 2020. Read more
According to the IPBES Pandemics report released in October 2020, future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases. The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. Experts agree that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but it will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention.
One of the crucial lessons from COVID-19 pandemic and others that have preceded is that we live in a deeply interconnected complex system. As such, we absolutely need to break down the persistent silos in decision-making. We must also recognize that the decisions taken today on the way we recover can lock-in damaging economic patterns that perpetuate ecosystem destruction, climate change and biodiversity loss. Alternatively, we can invest in healthier, greener and more equitable world by strengthening our capacity for prevention, detection and response through a complex systems approach.
Cristina Romanelli, Programme officer, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Health, WHO. Speaking at Nature-based Solutions and Health, on 26 April 2021.
One Health Approach
Around 60% of existing human infectious diseases are zoonotic and 75% of emerging infectious diseases (including Ebola, HIV, influenza, and COVID-19) have an animal origin. Controlling zoonotic pathogens at their animal source is the most effective and economic way of protecting people. Thus, in order to prevent the emergence of new diseases, we need to recognize the deep interconnections of human, animal and environmental health and work collaboratively across these sectors.
According to the One Health High Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP), One Health is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems. It recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and inter-dependent.
Collaboration is a central component of the One Health approach as it transcends thematic boundaries and calls for comprehensive responses on health issues. Mobilizing multiple sectors, disciplines and communities to work together is essential to foster well-being and tackle threats to health and ecosystems, while addressing other sustainable development issues – clean water, energy, food, climate change, and more.
International institutions, in International Geneva and beyond, have established collaborative programs to achieve the common goal of protecting health. The main international organizations working in this area are the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH, formely OIE) and United Nations Environmnent Programme (UNEP).
In light of the COVID pandemic, One Health has been recognized as a key component of epidemic prevention, preparedness and response. Incidentally One Health provides valuable insights for the development of international collaboration on global health, for example in the context of current debates on a prospective pandemic treaty.