21 April 2017

HEALTH - Global Pandemics: What Puts us at Risk?

(World Health Organization)
Although pandemics are not a new phenomenon even for modern humans, the risks are increasing.

SARS, Ebola, Swine and Avian Flu, Zika – global health challenges have been mounting, and the next crisis-level pandemic will likely come from an unexpected source, and will hit with unprecedented force.

Although vaccination and hygiene mitigate the risk, other factors exacerbate it.

Travel is one of the biggest issues, particularly air travel. Humans travel faster than they ever have before, and across greater distances.

Infections can be carried from one population to another population in a different part of the world before the carrier even knows that they’re sick.

However, travel is not inherently an issue – pre-colonial Africans travelled widely, but had precautions in place to prevent the spread of illnesses.

One of their most effective strategies is simply no longer an option - spreading people out, so that one group of infected people would not result in an entire population being exposed.

This changed with colonization, and today global urbanization and population density pose some of the greatest risks.

It is not feasible to quarantine people with enough time and enough distance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and becoming less feasible by the year.

The UN estimates that over half the global population will live in urban areas by 2050.

Global inequality is another major risk factor, in a few different ways.

Civil unrest leaves countries vulnerable to an outbreak by putting exceptional strain on their resources and infrastructure, and countries are more likely to experience conflict when they are struggling economically.

Civil unrest is also contagious itself, meaning that the spread of conflict and the spread of disease can go hand-in-hand.

Global inequality also means that the regions most likely to experience an outbreak are also least likely to attract and retain qualified medical staff.

There are better prospects elsewhere, and qualified medical staff are unlikely to stay in impoverished countries where there is neither the compensation nor the infrastructure to support their work.

Referred to as “brain drain,” this migration of health workers has been an issue since the early 20th century.

However, it is not only the behaviour of humans that contributes to this current escalated threat level.

Zoonotic diseases are also a significant source of threat, even more urgently than they have been in the past.

Both Zoobiquity and the One Health Initiative aim to take a holistic view of human and animal health, recognizing and responding to zoonotic threats – those diseases that can jump the species barrier.

Until now, most of the concerns around zoonotic diseases have been with those diseases that move from animals to humans, such as swine and avian flu, ringworm and other parasites (including rat lungworm disease), and rabies.

Recently, a vet contracted avian flu from a cat – demonstrating just how easily some diseases hop between species.

But the recent rise of reverse zoonotic diseases is a growing concern.

Not only are animals at risk from reverse zoonoses, but humans are also at increased risk of both reinfection from their infected pets, and also of mutated and potentially more harmful diseases that cross back into the human population.

A study in 2006 concluded that MRSA was able to transmit back and forth between pets and humans, making treatment difficult and lengthy.

Finally, when discussing global health, it’s impossible to ignore the state of the globe itself.

Climate change is a factor in the rising risk of a global pandemic.

Heat waves and flooding are providing more opportunities for waterborne and mosquito-transmitted diseases in new locations.

Climate change also exacerbates the risk of civil unrest, and the pressure on urban locales.

These escalating shifts will continue to open up new risk areas, and governments and other agencies will need to keep up.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives. 

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