Environmental health scientists are calling for an integrated approach to prevent future outbreaks of disease as well as to mitigate the climate crisis.
Recent studies show that the increased transmission of zoonotic diseases – diseases that spread from animals to humans – is largely caused by man-made disturbances to natural ecosystems, including human encroachment of the natural habitats of wild animals.
Integrated prevention and mitigation measures were vital to outbreaks resulting from zoonotic pathogens, said conservation biology professor Jatna Supriatna of the University of Indonesia and a member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI). He cited SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – Zika and avian flu as examples of zoonotic outbreaks that had direct links to deforestation and other human activities that caused profound changes to the natural environment.
Jatna warned that future pandemics could start in any region in the world that had a high rate of deforestation and forest conversion, including Kalimantan and Papua. He added that Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, had lost around 25 percent of its natural forests to industrial development.
In the case of deforestation, he explained that the practice had driven wild animals to move from their natural habitats and forced them to live in closer proximity to newly established human settlements. This therefore heightened the risk of zoonosis through the rise of illegal trade in wild animals, including wet markets.
“The number of [predators] continues to decline and, in some cases, has even dropped to zero,” Jatna said on Monday during an online discussion held by The Conversation Indonesia, pointing out that animals like bats, wild pigs and rats thrived in the absence of local predator species.
“They are the ones that carry viruses,” he added.
Medical researcher Sofia Mubarika of Yogkarta-based Gadjah Mada University, who is also a member of AIPI, suggested that Indonesia bolster its implementation of the One Health approach to address overlapping issues of ecological stability and public health.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), One Health “is an approach to designing and implementing programs, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.”
“The One Health concept has actually been implemented in Indonesia. For instance, the government established the National Committee on Zoonosis and Communicable Diseases Control in 2012,” Sofia said at the discussion.
She stressed, however, that the committee had generally failed in communicating its findings to other relevant state departments, as well as the public.
Sofia proposed that One Health be incorporated into the national curriculum to raise public awareness, especially among the youth.
A 2016 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that 60 percent of human infectious diseases originate in animals, with the figure climbing to 75 percent for emerging diseases like Ebola, HIV, avian flu, Zika, and SARS.
"The emergence of zoonotic diseases is often associated with environmental changes or ecological disturbances, such as agricultural intensification and human settlement, or encroachments into forests and other habitats," said the UNEP report, as quoted in an April 2020 article by AFP.
The COVID-19 pandemic stems from the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in December 2019 at a wet market in Wuhan, central China.
The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in bats and possibly transmitted through an intermediate host species like the pangolin, an endangered species which is highly prized for its meat and scales in parts of Asia.
Research and Technology Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro, who also heads the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said that a circular economy could be the answer to the climate crisis and related issues. The inherently regenerative and sustainable design of the circular economy could be a viable climate solution and reduce the risk of future pandemics, he said.
“The circular economy appears to be a solution for a slew of complex problems related to climate change,” Bambang said.
“It can help people meet their needs by repurposing waste as consumer goods.”