Health has no boundaries

Dogs don't respect personal space, even for snow people

When naming viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans, health officials use the name of the transmission species: avian influenza, swine influenza, equine influenza and so on. The World Health Organization says the disease name shouldn’t include the location (e.g., Asian bird flu) but popular usage breaks this rule. People like to blame others for their misfortune, even though the animal (or region) wasn’t complicit but was instead just another unfortunate host of the virus.

News stories occasionally report on Covid spreading to non-human animals. You may have read of minks catching Covid. Otters in an aquarium in Georgia caught it, which confirmed that the mustelid family (minks, otters, weasels, ferrets, and badgers) is highly susceptible to the virus. Household pets get Covid too.  Although most of us see the daily number of human infections and deaths in our newspapers, we are mostly ignorant of the total number of infections of all animals, human or not, from Covid 19.

Sharing germs

Scientists call diseases that transmit across animal and human species ‘zoonotic’. Per the CDC, 3 out of 4 new diseases infecting people come from animals. Infections occur every possible way: direct and indirect contact, through animals like ticks or fleas that carry the virus from one host to another, or borne by food, water or air. Although humans are highly attuned to what’s transmitted to them from other species, we don’t pay much attention to the diseases we transmit to other animals.  We should, if only from self-interest. Dr. Ria Ghai of the CDC, who worked on the otter infection, commented:

“This investigation was a great example of a strong One Health collaboration to protect both human and animal health,” said Dr. Ghai. “It involved public health and animal health partners from the local level (Georgia Aquarium and University of Georgia), state level (Georgia Department of Public Health and their laboratories), and federal level (CDC and USDA-APHIS), all working together to protect the health of the otters and other aquarium animals, as well as the health of staff, volunteers, and aquarium visitors.”

Dr. Ria Ghai, One Health Office, CDC

Learning more about the infections in the otters, for instance, helps us learn more about how the virus is transmitted, as well as the environmental and biological factors that contribute to contagion. The more we know, the better we can protect all species. As the CDC reminds us, we humans also transmit disease to other animals.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

One Health

Inclusivity is critical to understanding any one part of the whole. One Health is a global initiative to communicate, collaborate and coordinate to understand and control disease transmission. Those involved work across the spectrum of human, animal, and environmental health.  We humans don’t live in isolation from other animals or the environment, and people live differently now than they did in the past.

With the growing human population, more people are living more closely together. We frequently travel the globe in airplanes, quickly moving passengers and the germs they carry across borders. Our experiences with trying to contain Covid and its variants has dramatically demonstrated just how connected we all are.

An historical look-back

The bubonic plague started in Mongolia in 1346. Through war and sea travel, the disease traveled to Constantinople in May 1347. Constantinople lost 90 percent of its population to the disease. In October of that year it spread to Italy, then to France the following month. For several years it continued its infectious transmission through all of Europe. By the time it finally receded in 1351, the disease had taken the lives of fifty percent of the European population. The virus never became extinct.

Consider that the population of Europe in 1340 was about 73 million people. The population today is more than ten times that: 748 million. The largest European city in the 14th century was Constantinople, reaching 500,000 at its peak. Today, there are more than 100 European cities with over 500,000 inhabitants, totaling 121 million people. We live much closer together today, sharing water, food, air and living spaces (home, work, dining and entertainment).  Pause to think about the devastation the bubonic plague would have made on all humanity if there had been 10 times the number of inhabitants in the world at the time, traveling not only by sea but also by air.

Fortunately, in addition to the increase in population we’ve also increased our scientific knowledge since the Middle Ages. We’re better equipped to prevent and control infectious diseases, but this requires ongoing effort and a smarter use of our resources.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The resources needed, as One Health explains, are inclusive: people who work in human, animal, and environmental health. These people are not only scientists, but also journalists, lawyers, teachers, conservationists, business people, animal care givers. And of course, we must include non-human animals themselves: not just as test subjects, but also as our partners in detecting disease itself.  

2 thoughts on “Health has no boundaries

  1. Wow. We tend to think of other animals as ‘dirty,’ but maybe to them, we are as dirty and stinky as we think they are?

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