COVID-19 has rung alarm bells across the entire world, with nearly two million people infected, almost 100,000 deaths, and costing the global economy trillions. Many of us fancy ourselves as problem solvers, and no doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has also forced us to reflect on how the heck we got here!
The wild animal market in China, also known as the wet market, has been pegged as the source of COVID-19. Researchers believe the deadly respiratory disease was passed on from horseshoe bats or pangolins, before jumping over to humans.
As a result of these risks, scientists and medical professionals are begging governments to shut down all wet markets to prevent the spread of more pandemic diseases.
But is this just the beginning of necessary drastic measures to protect public health?
In this post, we’re going to look at the impact of the consumption of animals in wild markets and see how it stacks up to factory farming as it relates to the pandemic and chronic disease.
Hopefully, after reading this post, you’ll see that we need to shut down much more than the Chinese wet market to prevent unprecedented global human death rates.
Health impact of wild animals
The trade, handling, and consumption of wild animals have an incredible impact on our public health systems. There’s a recurring theme of diseases transferred from animal to animal, human and nonhuman, contributing to some of the most profound pandemic diseases of the last century.
70% of infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic in origin and scientists believe that they’re nearly 1.7 million undiscovered diseases in wildlife!
Below is a breakdown of pandemic and chronic diseases and how they came to be.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
SARS first appeared in November 2002 in southern China and rapidly spread worldwide within a few months. However, SARS was quickly contained within 12 months.
Origin: Chinese researchers found the virus that causes SARS in civet cats, a species eaten as a delicacy in China.
Fatalities: 774 deaths.
Ebola Virus Disease (EVD)
EVD was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ebola is a nasty disease transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids that causes severe bleeding and organ failure.
Origin: Ebola breakouts have been associated with the butchering and consumption of “bushmeat,” including chimpanzees and bonobos. It’s also suspected that the disease was transmitted through other primates and fruit bats.
Fatalities: 12,797 deaths.
Nipah Virus Infection (NVI)
The Nipah virus was initially found in Malaysia in September 1998 and quickly spread to other parts of SouthEast Asia, including Singapore, India, and Bangladesh. NVI was contained by May 1999.
Origin: Researchers believe the Nipah virus jumped to humans from fruit bats via farmed pigs in Malaysia.
Fatalities: 105 deaths.
Measles is one of the most contagious viral diseases in history. It’s commonly found in children; however, it can also affect adults.
Origin: It’s said that measles originated somewhere between the 11th and 12th centuries in the middle east. It’s believed that sheep and goats have the disease, which then spilled over to humans as a result of domesticating the animals.
Fatalities: Too many to count. At some point in the 1950s, 2.6 million people died each year from Measles.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
HIV, the virus that causes aids, is believed to have originated in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920. Like Ebola, HIV is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. In particular, it spreads prolifically during unprotected sex.
Origin: Through the hunting, butchering, and consumption of HIV infected primates.
Fatalities: Over 32 million deaths.
Health impact of factory-farmed animals
Globally, 90 per cent of farmed animals come from factory farms. Outside of the obvious ethical issues for animal welfare, these confined industrialised environments create an unprecedented incubator for human diseases.
Below is a summary of pandemic and chronic diseases attributed to factory farms.
Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, was first identified in Italy in the early 1900s and has been the source for some of the most significant global pandemics ever recorded.
Origin: Occurs in wild waterfowl and can spread to domestic birds through feces and secretions through the nose, eyes, and mouth. Humans get Avian influenza through the handling and consumption of poultry in factory farms.
Fatalities: 722 deaths between 2003 and 2015, and 50 million deaths in 1918 through the spread of the Spanish Flu during WWI.
The Asian flu, also known as the 1957 flu pandemic, was first identified in February 1957 in East Asia before spreading to the rest of the world. It was the second pandemic of the 20th century proceeding Avian influenza.
Origin: Researchers found that the Asian flu originated from a mixed-species strain, which includes the Avian and human influenza viruses.
Fatalities: 1-2 million deaths in 10 years.
Hong Kong influenza
The Hong Kong flu was the third pandemic of the 20th century following Avian and Asian influenza viruses. This virus was first discovered in July 1968 in China, before going global—and kept spreading until 1970.
Origin: Researchers found that the Hong Kong flu was an influenza subtype from 1957, which originated from the handling and consumption of factory-farmed animals.
Fatalities: 1-4 million deaths.
The Swine flu was first identified in 1930 but is best known for its viral spread between January 2009 and August 2010.
Origin: Humans can get swine flu from being in close regular contact with pigs, and pigs got swine flu from being in close contact with birds—specifically Avian influenza. This three-way transmission of swine flu is most commonly found in factory farm environments.
Fatalities: 18,000 deaths.
- Coli is a type of bacteria that lives in your intestines and is caught from animals. E. Coli in most can cause food poisoning, but it can also trigger pneumonia, and the bacteria causes 80-90 per cent of urinary tract infections.
Origin: Humans get E.Coli from eating undercooked meat, unpasteurized cow's milk, and water contaminated by animal feces.
Fatalities: 36,000 deaths per year in the U.S.
Salmonella is a bacteria that causes infection in your gastrointestinal tract and can cause severe illness and sometimes death. Older adults, infant/young children, and people with compromised immune systems are most susceptible to Salmonella.
Origin: Salmonella is commonly identified after consuming undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. It’s also found in unpasteurised dairy.
Fatalities: 450 deaths per year.
The link between chronic illness and factory-farmed animals
While most of the most deadly chronic diseases today didn’t originate from animals, they can certainly be prevented by not eating them—thus saving millions of lives each year.
Let’s take a quick look at how adopting a plant-based diet can drastically reduce the death rate of the two largest people-killing diseases in the world.
Coronary heart disease kills 17 million people around the world each year. That’s one-third of the global population! A study from the University of Oxford found that people who followed a vegetarian or vegan diet were 22% less likely to get heart disease.
Cancer kills 10 million people each year, making it the second leading cause of death after heart disease. In 2015, the World Health Organisation categorised processed meats as a carcinogen.
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who consumed red meat regularly had a 22% higher risk of getting breast cancer.
Even though a vegan diet can be incredibly powerful to fight chronic disease, we must recognise that positive research is based on people eating a low-fat whole-food plant-based diet.
This is to say, vegan or not; we need to reduce processed foods and saturated fats as a preventative measure for chronic illness.
A quick note about antibiotic resistance
While it’s clear that the consumption of factory-farmed animals has a detrimental impact on public health, there’s another piece of the puzzle that could be our greatest threat yet, and that’s antibiotic resistance.
Farmers found that giving antibiotics to livestock fattened up the animals and thus their wallets. Antibiotics are also used to treat sick animals.
About 75% of antibiotics used in the U.S. and Europe are used in animal agriculture. Let that sink in for a second...
As a result of this unfathomable use of antibiotics in factory farming, humans that eat animals and their byproducts are unwittingly consuming antibiotics in small doses.
As bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, many of us will be powerless when it comes to treating the likes of pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
At the moment, antibiotic resistance kills 700,000 people each year, a number that’s predicted to increase to 10 million by 2050 if we don’t do something about it.
What can we do to prevent animal-derived diseases?
When you look at the big picture, the impact of exploiting, slaughtering, and consuming animals is perhaps the largest contributor to global death rates.
Governments, businesses, and individuals need to make drastic changes to slow down this level of pandemic and chronic disease.
Here are three things that need to happen moving forward:
- Ban wildlife trade - native and foreign wildlife is consumed by humans in every country. It’s not worth the risk as history has shown time and time again that this practice can lead to pandemic diseases.
- Ban factory farming - in addition to stopping wildlife exploitation, we must shut down factory farming. In addition to zoonotic disease, factory farming also poses risks for chronic illnesses and antibiotic resistance, making it even more deadly than wildlife trade.
- Go vegan - the most controllable thing you can do as an individual to help the public health crises is to go vegan. By removing your support of consuming and handling animals and drip-feeding on antibiotics, you’re not only helping yourself but everyone around you.
While this post has been focused on the public health of humans, it’s also worth mentioning that an insane amount of animals have died from the same diseases or murdered for disease prevention.
COVID-19 has been a confronting experience for everyone, but we hope these hard times force us to reflect on our collective behaviour and realise that lives can be saved if we stop exploiting animals. Let’s not keep encouraging history to repeat itself.
Author: Michael Ofei