Mankind is on a collision course with nature around the world which could trigger an outbreak known as “Disease X” which could be worse than the Black Death.
Scientists have predicted we could face a health emergency or pandemic every five years likely caused by “zoonotic” diseases – when infections jump from animals to humans.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced this week it believes Covid is likely one of these types of infections as it is believed to have crossed from animals such as bats to humans.
It has been warned even more deadly diseases like this are on the horizon – with warnings the next pandemic could be on the scale of the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 75million people.
Experts say there are many other mysterious diseases lurking on the fringes of human society around the world which could make the jump to man.
And there have been dozens of examples of diseases crossing from animals to man over the last few decades alone.
The nightmare scenario is one of these new diseases, or a strain of an older one, emerges that is both highly contagious and highly deadly – allowing it to spread quickly and kill millions before the world can take action.
The threat of unknown viruses that can be transmitted to humans and potentially cause widespread epidemics is known as Disease X by WHO.
Out of the 1.67million unknown viruses on the planet up to 827,000 of these could have the ability to infect people from animals.
South East Asia, Southern and Central Africa, areas around the Amazon, and eastern Australia were all identified as the areas of highest risk for new diseases.
And as the human population swells and moves further into animal habitats, the risk of the transmission of diseases to humans grows.
Mankind faces a “perfect storm”
Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.
This often occurs in areas where communities live that are most vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Scientists have widely warned mankind could face a health emergency every five years unless further precautions are taken – with the threat being highlighted in a December briefing by the World Economic Forum.
“Covid-19 is not the last health emergency. Instead, it is likely that humanity will see a pandemic or health emergency at least once every five years,” it said.
“We may not be able to avoid this risk entirely, but we can mitigate the fallout.“
And an editorial in the Lancet warned: “This pandemic is a sobering warning against exploiting the natural world without pause, and that zoonoses affect not only health but the whole fabric of society.
“Covid-19 will not be the last, and perhaps not the worst, zoonotic pandemic.
Stop messing with nature
Wet markets, rainforest clearance, expanding urban areas and the construction of dams can all lead to man coming into contact with animals and potentially contracting a new disease.
Man’s conflict with nature has led to new infections such as Kyasanur forest disease – known as monkey fever – which is spread by ticks or contact with infected animals.
It has been spreading more commonly since 2012 as farmers expand their pastures and move their cattle close to the forests in India – with a fatality rate of around 10 per cent in humans.
The Hendra virus infection is also an emerging disease as bats infect horses which can the spread the infection to humans – with it being found in the suburbs for Australia since 1994.
Lujo fever is also believed to have been spread from rodents to humans in South Africa in 2008 – and while there were only five patients, it had a fatality rate of 80 per cent.
SARS – like Covid – is also believed to first emerged from bats in China, and MERS is believed to have spread from bats to camels to humans in the Middle East.
There is only one species to blame for diseases like Covid – humans – and he called for action to prevent any further crises.
He said: “As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost.
“We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.“
Anthony Lockett, chief medical officer at Biotaspheric, explained that the destruction of habitats and the crowding of humans and animals together is fuelling the spread of disease.
Mr Lockett named wet markets as a huge risk of disease transmission, particularly from bats, when speaking to The Sun Online.
He said: “Bats are a common cause of spillover into humans as they are a widespread species and they fly.“
He added: “Bats are also a food source for humans. Bats, and other mammalian species, and humans most often come into contact at live or wet markets -particularly where animals are being butchered.
“So future spillover events can come from markets where wild animals are sold fresh.“
Mr Lockett added how areas around the Amazon Rainforest clearance, the Mekong River dams in Laos and the Three Gorges dam in China are all areas at risk of transmission.
Farms are expanding into the Amazon rainforest, driving animals including bats and monkeys away from their habitats and into new areas.
Humans are also interacting more with indigenous species as they move further into the rainforest.
Mr Lockett added: “Construction of dams on the Mekong River has put humans at risk of catching tropical diseases living in the wetlands.
Disease carrying parasites and animals could thrive in any changes brought on by hydropower projects.
For example, changes in water levels caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam caused the transmission of snail fever, which thrived in the new conditions.
Dam building has also been linked to a resurgence of malaria, with workers coming into contact more with mosquitoes.
And there may be much more harmful diseases in the area which have not been uncovered yet.
Agricultural practices may also be putting humans at risk of disease, Mr Lockett added.
He also said: “The chances of spillover events may also be increased by human practices. The use of cow dung to dissuade monkeys from eating crops could increase the chances of spillover events.
“Future spillover events will most likely occur within the foodchain.
“This will be either through food distribution such as live or wet markets, food production through clearance agriculture, or where food sources such as pigs are kept in close proximity to other animals and humans.“
American scientist Linda Saif who was worked on interspecies transmission for around 40 years explained how bats were the ancestral hosts of SARS and MERS – as well as Covid-19.
She said: “Many other viruses have emerged from bats to infect humans, including the SARS coronavirus, Ebola virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus and rabies virus.“
Ms Saif also explained how the spillover of zoonotic diseases often depend on an intermediary host, putting places where humans live close to animals at risk.
Earlier this week, Environmental writer John Vidal, who is working on a book revealing the links between nature and disease, predicted the world faces a new Black Death-scale pandemic.
Given the popularity of air travel and global trade, a virus could rampage across the world, unknowingly spread by asymptomatic carriers, “in a few weeks, killing tens of millions of people before borders could be closed,” he adds.
He said: “Mankind has changed its relationship with both wild and farmed animals, destroying their habitats and crowding them together – and the process… is only accelerating.
“If we fail to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, this present pandemic may be only a precursor to something far graver still.“
What are the world’s worst pandemics
These are the most deadly disease outbreaks in history – with many times the death toll than currently being unleashed by Covid.
Black Death – Somewhere between 75 and 200million people lost their lives – up to 60 per cent of the entire population of Europe – when the plague ravaged the continent from 1346 to 1353.
It was most likely passed to humans via fleas which were feeding on black rats on trade ships in the Mediterranean before spreading across Europe and North Africa.
Spanish Flu – As the world attempted to recover from the horror of the Great War in 1918, a disaster which killed twice as many people as the conflict emerged with Spanish Flu.
Somewhere between 17million and 100million people died during the pandemic which lasted until 1920 – but there is currently no consensus as to where the virus originated, although it appears to have avian genes.
Plague of Justinian – Believed to be the same bacteria responsible for the Black Death, the plague ravaged Europe and West Asia killing between 15milion and 100million people in 541 and 542AD.
It is believed to have been spread by rats carrying fleas as well – spreading into the Byzantine Empire via grain ships arriving from Egypt.
HIV/AIDs Pandemic – Still ravaging parts of the world, its estimated some 35million people have been killed by the insidious virus since 1981.
It is believed to have jumped from primates to humans and was potentially first spread by the bushmeat trade.
The Third Plague – The Bubonic plague struck again in China in 1855 from where it spread and killed up to 15million people.
WHO estimated the bacteria was running rampant until 1960 – with only then the pandemic ending, and they continue to closely monitor any outbreaks of the plague.
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