Destruction of the environment ‘could make future pandemics more likely and less manageable’

Rob Waugh
Contributor
New infectious diseases are often linked to changes in land use, researchers said. (Getty Images)

Destruction of the natural environment by farming and deforestation makes future pandemics more likely, scientists have suggested.

The research, by the University of the West of England (UWE) and the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, suggests disease risks are “ultimately interlinked” with biodiversity and natural processes such as the water cycle.

Diseases from animals, or “zoonotic” diseases, often begin due to changes in land use, the researchers said.

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Previous research by the EcoHealth Alliance suggested that 31% of outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases were linked to changes in land use, including HIV, Ebola and the Zika virus.

The researchers analysed the relationship between societies and the environment using a computer framework, and concluded that maintaining intact ecosystems would help prevent the emergence of new pandemics.

Deforestation and other land use change undermines resources including water which are key to reducing disease transmission, the study found. 

Lead author Dr Mark Everard, of the UWE Bristol, said: “Ecosystems naturally restrain the transfer of diseases from animals to humans, but this service declines as ecosystems become degraded.

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“At the same time, ecosystem degradation undermines water security, limiting availability of adequate water for good hand hygiene, sanitation and disease treatment.

“Disease risk cannot be dissociated from ecosystem conservation and natural resource security.”

Previous outbreaks such as Ebola have been linked to changes in land use. (Getty images)

Dr David Santillo, of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at Exeter, said: “The speed and scale with which radical actions have been taken in so many countries to limit the health and financial risks from COVID-19 demonstrate that radical systemic change would also be possible in order to deal with other global existential threats, such as the climate emergency and collapse of biodiversity, provided the political will is there to do so.”

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Previous research this year highlighted the importance in preserving natural land to separate animal and human activity.

The leading scientific evidence points to the likelihood that SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is a zoonotic virus that jumped from animals to humans.

Ebola, bird flu and SARS are other diseases known to have spilled over into the human population from nonhuman animals.

“Human risk to diseases like COVID-19 could be reduced by halting the trade and sale of wildlife, and minimising human intrusion into wild areas,” said Andrew Jacobson, professor of GIS (geographic information system) and conservation at Catawba College in North Carolina.

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