Zoonotic Diseases: What we need to do next

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused devastating human, social, and economic distress and reminded us that our health is inextricably linked to the health of our ecosystems and food systems.

COVID-19 is just one of a range of diseases to have made the jump from wildlife to people in recent years. 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic - that is, transmitted to people from other animals.

Major drivers of biodiversity loss can contribute to the emergence and spread of zoonoses, from unsustainable land use practices such as deforestation, overgrazing and water abstraction, to the direct exploitation of nature, including through unsustainable or illegal wildlife trade.

These drivers disrupt the balance of nature and can raise the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.  Reducing this risk for the future must now be a key consideration across for the health and environment communities.

The UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) recently published a response to the COVID-19 pandemic: we will work to understand and address the drivers of zoonotic disease emergence and seek transformational change in the relationship between people and nature to help reduce future risk of zoonotic disease emergence.

On World Zoonoses Day, here are some of the specific steps we will take to contribute to efforts to guard against the risk of future zoonotic disease pandemics:

Understanding and responding to risk of disease emergence

  • By reviewing the science and ensuring it is accessible to inform policy options, we can better understand the relationship between biodiversity loss and zoonotic diseases and take that on board in health responses. For example, we can [NA3] build models and scenarios on the zoonotic emergence risk at various spatial scales and work with disease and health experts to generate insights on ways to reduce risks from wildlife trade.

Addressing environmental challenges at national and international levels

  • Through science, technical support and advocacy, we will work with national governments, the finance sector, business, communities and civil society to deliver scientific advice on green recovery pathways and provide evidence and advice to international policy processes to highlight the importance of environmental resilience in a zoonotic disease context.

Rebuilding resilient infrastructure

  • We will support both the public and the private sectors to rebuild the next generation of social, ecological and productive infrastructure. We will develop guidance on how to create infrastructure that is more resistant to climate and other risks, including those posed by zoonotic disease, and enhance the positive role consumers can play in leading more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Adopting the ‘One Health’ approach

  • The ‘One Health’ approach considers public health, agriculture and ecosystem health as clearly interconnected issues. This will be bolstered by approaches such as National Ecosystem Assessments, risk mapping and futures modelling that provide the vital information necessary to understand and reduce risk of future zoonotic disease emergence.

Supporting the development and delivery of global environmental agreements

  • Ambitious delivery of multilateral environmental agreements is more important now than ever before. Working with the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is key to creating an impactful, future strategic plan for biodiversity and to ensuring that international wildlife trade is legal and sustainable.

Read more about UNEP-WCMC plan of work in response to the COVID-19 outbreak here.

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