'The perfect petri dish': Animal to human disease outbreaks rise by more than 60% in Africa

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Outbreaks of diseases that travelled from animals to humans in Africa have risen by 63% in the past decade, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.

The spike in transmissions, recorded between 2012 and 2022, could mean the world faces increased animal-borne illnesses including Ebola, monkeypox and COVID - which is "likely" to have originated from a bat, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report published last year.

A particular increase was observed between 2019 and 2020, when diseases which originated in animals before spreading to humans accounted for half of all significant public health events in Africa.

Diseases including Ebola and other infectious illnesses were responsible for around 70% of those events, together with conditions such as monkeypox, anthrax and plague, the WHO said in a statement on Thursday.

WHO Africa director, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said we must act now to contain zoonotic diseases - which occur when pathogens including viruses spread from animals to humans - before they cause "widespread infections".

She called on world leaders to stop "Africa from becoming a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases".

Intercontinental travel has made it easier for viruses to cross borders, Dr Moeti warned.

Africa has the world's fastest growing population, leading to increased urbanisation and less space for wildlife to roam.

Scientists fear this means outbreaks once contained in distant rural areas could spread more rapidly to large African cities with international travel links - leading to the diseases being spread across the globe.

Wildlife charities and academics earlier warned the widespread destruction of natural habitats is increasing the risk of further pandemics.

Dr Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), warned deforestation is bringing humans into closer contact with animals, increasing the risk of zoonotic illness being transmitted.

"We have created the perfect petri dish for pathogen spread," he said.

"At the heart of this problem is the conversion of more and more habitat to produce agricultural commodities for international supply chains.

"As we decimate forests like the Amazon so we increase the risk of the next pandemic."

Meanwhile, cat owners with COVID or who have displayed symptoms were last year warned against cuddling their pets after scientists found people can infect their animals.

The warning came after two separate cases of human to cat transmission of the virus were identified in a screening programme of the UK's feline population at the University of Glasgow.

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