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Environmental problems could make pandemics more likely and less manageable

Researchers say healthy ecosystems prevent consumers from infection

Photo (c) Nastco - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter found that environmental factors can play a large role in future pandemics. 

According to their research, healthy, functioning ecosystems can work to prevent consumers from animal-spread viruses. However, because many ecosystems are being destroyed, the number of pandemics is likely to increase and will continue to be hard to manage. 

“Ecosystems naturally restrain the transfer of diseases from animals to humans, but this service declines as ecosystems become degraded,” said researcher Dr. Mark Everard. “At the same time, ecosystem degradation undermines water security, limiting the availability of adequate water for good hand hygiene, sanitation, and disease treatment. Disease risk cannot be dissociated from ecosystem conservation and natural resource security.” 

Linking the environment and disease risk

To understand how ecosystems are closely linked with the spread of disease, the researchers utilized the Drivers-Pressure-State change-Impact-Response (DPSIR) model. This allowed them to look at three main factors: what role ecosystems play in the spread and treatment of disease and how to protect that role, the ability to treat those affected by the spread of infection, and getting the spread of infection between humans under control. 

The researchers learned that the incidence of pandemics is likely to increase because of the way humans interact with the natural world. Moreover, that same relationship with the environment can affect the resources that are available to treat such infections. 

The study revealed that the environment and the spread of disease are connected in several ways. Not only are humans interacting more with animals than ever before, but climate change, an overproduction of livestock, and deforestation all contribute to animals spreading infections to humans at a faster rate. 

The researchers also explained that less attention is paid to preserving ecosystems as the population grows. This alone is cause for concern, but these factors also place a burden on the clean water supply. With rising infection levels and a dwindling supply of clean water, treating and containing a rapidly spreading virus will only become more difficult in the future.  

Learning from past mistakes

According to the researchers, the current COVID-19 pandemic provides lawmakers with the perfect opportunity to enact policies that will protect the environment, which in turn can protect consumers. 

“The speed and scale with which radical actions have been taken in so many countries to limit the health and financial risks from COVID-19 demonstrate that radical system change would also be possible in order to deal with other global existential threats, such as the climate emergency and collapse of biodiversity, provided the political will is there to do so,” said researcher Dr. David Santillo. 

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