- In an interview with Mongabay-India, Sandeep Chaudhari, head, department of veterinary public health and epidemiology at Nagpur Veterinary College, under Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Sciences University, speaks on the importance of animal health and its linkages to human health and why a reactive approach to zoonotic disease outbreaks needs to be replaced with a robust One Health mechanism in India.
- With three deaths and 148 active cases (reported as of March 19, 9 a.m. IST) of the novel coronavirus disease in biodiversity-rich India, experts underscore the need for the One Health framework in the country.
- Scientists have found no evidence that the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was made in a laboratory or otherwise engineered. The outbreak has highlighted the need to address threats to ecosystems and wildlife.
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been characterised by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. The causative virus SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than 207,860 cases ever since it was first reported from Wuhan in China late last year (2019).
People in 166 countries, areas or territories have since been infected. Over 8600 people have died of the viral infection as of March 18, 2020.
According to findings published on March 17, 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine, SARS-CoV-2 has evolved naturally as scientists found no evidence of it being made in a laboratory or engineered otherwise. The outbreak brings to sharp focus the need to address threats to ecosystems and wildlife.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).
While scientists race to trace the likely animal origin of the novel coronavirus (zoonosis), the environmental community has stressed the importance of addressing the many threats, often interlinked, to ecosystems and wildlife in order to prevent the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases.
With three deaths and 148 active cases (reported as of March 19, 9 a.m. IST) of the novel coronavirus disease in biodiversity-rich India, experts underscore the need for the One Health framework in the country. One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach linking human, animal, and environmental health.
In an interview with Mongabay-India, Sandeep Chaudhari, head, department of veterinary public health and epidemiology at Nagpur Veterinary College, under Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Sciences University (MAFSU), speaks on the importance of animal health and its linkages to human health, the upcoming One Health Centre (at the college campus) and why a reactive approach to zoonotic disease outbreaks needs to be replaced with a robust One Health mechanism in India.
Why is animal health important to human health?
Animals have been an integral part of human life from time immemorial. From providing food to maintaining ecological balance they have had a varied role to play in human life. Animal health has both direct and indirect impacts on human health. The direct impact is the increased incidence of emerging diseases of animal origin like Nipah virus infection, Ebola virus disease, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), influenza.
Not only zoonotic diseases but diseases like Foot and mouth disease (FMD) which is primarily a viral disease of animals causes a whopping loss of Rs. 20,000 crore (Rs. 200 billion) annually in India. This not only impacts the country’s economy but at the grassroots level affects the farmers’ livelihood, making them vulnerable. It is not wrong to say that animals serve as a means for a human to achieve physical, mental and social wellbeing.
What are the major drivers for zoonoses? How are manmade environmental stressors linked to zoonoses, particularly for India?
The interface between human-animal and environment leads to zoonoses, hence the causes can be complex. Climatic change, deforestation, animal adaptation and migration, vectors, travel, trade, population mobility, lack of hygiene, tourism, human susceptibility, pathogen mutation and factors leading to its adaptability, population growth, urbanisation, human behaviour and cultural factors, food preferences, the balance of food production and its ecological impacts, laboratory escapes, etc. are some of the causes of zoonoses.
A classic example of manmade environmental stressors leading to zoonoses is the rise of Japanese encephalitis in India. From being confined to Tamil Nadu in the early 1960s it has now affected 22 rice-growing states. Larvae of the carrier, the Culex mosquito, breeds in pools of water such as flooded rice fields. Incidence has increased in Gorakhpur and neighbouring districts in Uttar Pradesh after the late 1970s when more farmers switched from sugarcane cultivation to paddy.
Further, the encroachment of humans into wildlife habitats has invited many zoonotic diseases including typically the Indian origin Kyasanur forest disease (KFD) in Karnataka.
How is the upcoming research centre going to help India tackle zoonoses? Is there any work going on regarding COVID-19 at your end? In general, what do we know about coronaviruses and zoonoses?
With 75 percent of the recent emerging disease being zoonotic, a centre dedicated to the study, identification, diagnosis, and control of zoonotic diseases is a need of the hour. The upcoming One Health Centre is being established in collaboration with Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Sciences University (MAFSU), Nagpur and ICMR-National Institute of Virology, Pune. The land has already been allocated and the construction work of laboratories of the highest biosafety level will be initiated soon.
The institute will be equipped with ultra-modern facilities for conduction of research on zoonotic diseases. Since it will be biosafety level 4 (BSL-IV or highest biosafety standard), it will be geared to work on highly zoonotic diseases with respect to their diagnosis, molecular epidemiology, strain studies, evolution, transmission dynamics, vector studies and much more. The complete studies in human, animals as well as in the environment would be conducted. The scientists of the various disciplines of human, veterinary, environmental sciences, as well as other related branches, will be contributing under one roof so as to find quick solutions in cases of spread of zoonotic diseases; practically in case of even large epidemics as well.
Currently, as a university (MAFSU) we are spreading awareness among people about the prevention of COVID-19 and breaking myths associated with it. Significantly, we are emphasising that there is no correlation between eating foods of animal origin including chicken, goat meat and fish and COVID-19. We have been conducting camps in villages and schools for the same.
What is India’s policy on zoonoses?
In the current scenario, where about 816 zoonotic diseases (out of 1200 infectious) are known to have originated in animals (it is almost 75 percent), much is being neglected. There are bacterial, viral, parasitic, fungal zoonoses. To address such a heavy burden there should be a robust mechanism in India.
The disease control mechanism in India is bi-phasic. It includes vertical disease control programs such as the National Vector-Borne Diseases Control Programme, pilot projects for rabies and leptospirosis control that have been incorporated in the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2011). The second strategy includes the provision of ad-hoc assistance for outbreak investigations and control. India’s response is mostly reactive, which means controlling one outbreak after another. India, with a huge burden of zoonoses, seems to be lacking in one health policy. The upcoming zoonotic research center is a step in the right direction.
What are the COVID-19 rumours that should be debunked?
Poultry meat or any other product of animal origin does not lead to the spread of COVID-19. It is safe to consume, the only thing is that it should be thoroughly cooked. Neither are pet animals involved in transmission. As of today (March 18) there is no vaccine or cure available in the market. Rumours linked to its zoonotic nature need to be stopped as it has unnecessarily affected the poultry industry to a great extent.
Banner image: A 2005 image of Aedes japonicus (also called Ochlerotatus japonicus) mosquito. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this mosquito is suspected of being a vector of the Japanese Encephalitis virus in Asia and the West Nile in the United States. Photo by James Gathany, CDC.