When a feral dog bites your child on the way to school, what does it tell us about the balance between human and natural health in Africa? As it happens, a great deal. We poison predators who harass our livestock. The loss of those scavengers leads to more feral dogs roaming our streets, creating the potential for rabies to pose a more significant threat to human health.
Rabies kills tens of thousands every year, mainly in Asia and Africa. Around 40% of people bitten by potentially rabid animals are children under 15, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In up to 99% of cases, domestic dogs are responsible for rabies virus transmission to people. Rabies affects both domestic and wild animals. It not only kills. It is costly too.
Treating a rabies exposure, where the average cost of rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is around US$ 40 in Africa and US$ 49 in Asia, can be a catastrophic financial burden on affected families whose average daily income is around US$ 1–2 per person. When more than 15 million people worldwide receive a post-bite vaccination, the costs add up.
Understanding complex connections between the environment, human and animal health is critical for safeguarding nature and protecting human and animal health in Africa in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic as attention to the threat posed by zoonotic diseases grows.
Understanding more about nature’s role in supporting human health in Africa is at the heart of a new report, “Nature, the Environment & Health in Africa,” by WWF and the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program.
Boosting our understanding of the links between nature and human health is especially important in Africa, where nature brings economic prosperity and wellbeing to more than a billion people.
We know that animals and humans pay a high price for environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Last year we not only had the outbreak of COVID-19 but two Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Nigeria’s most severe Lassa fever outbreak on record. Most of East Africa is predicted to see a 20% increase in the risk of schistosomiasis – a water-borne disease – over the next 20 to 50 years due to climate change.
Our forthcoming report highlights five key priorities to pay attention to.
Firstly, we know too little about the dangers of environmental degradation to human health. We need to plug those gaps in our knowledge.
Secondly, nature’s broader role in supporting health remains undervalued. We are paying a high price for the degradation of Africa’s natural capital.
Thirdly, the health risks posed by environmental degradation cause disproportionate harm to Africa’s poorest and most rural populations, who live in closest association with biodiversity and natural ecosystems.
Fourthly, we need to educate everyone better about the bond between human, animal, and environmental health.
Fifthly, the connections between nature and health are rarely factored into sustainable development policy or public health policy in Africa. Again, that comes at a high price.
We need to talk more. To research more. To measure more. We need greater awareness. We need more evidence. We need new partnerships. We need better policies.
From pollution, poverty, pathogens and pesticides to parasites and pandemics, the links between animal health, human health, and environmental health are evident everywhere.
Our analysis shows that the collapse of ecosystems and the services they provide that support health represent a much more pervasive threat to our well-being than just emerging diseases such as COVID-19. This is because once degraded; ecosystems lose their ability to regulate burdens of infectious and non-infectious disease and their ability to remove pollutants, provide food and water security and the ingredients for pharmaceutical products, and support spiritual and mental health.
We also found evidence that extensive environmental degradation stemming from rapid urbanization, increased expansion and intensification of agriculture, and ongoing economic transformation, pose an increasingly severe threat to public health on the continent.
Efforts to promote the protection and more sustainable use of lands and waters should be treated as preventative medicine.
In much the same way that reducing air pollution is seen as a public health priority for preventing respiratory disease, halting deforestation, restoring degraded habitats, and promoting biodiversity and alternative livelihoods can prevent future global health crises.
While the importance of health to human wellbeing and sustainable development is evident, the critical role of nature in human health, especially in the African context, is still under-appreciated. Africa can boast unparalleled achievements in human health, wealth, and wellbeing in recent decades. Declines in poverty, an increase in food security, and the reduction and eradication of many diseases have transformed the lives of millions. But these advances are not always equitable or without cost.
Much of recent human development has come at the expense of nature, undermining ecosystems, fragmenting habitats, reducing biodiversity, and increasing our exposure and vulnerability to emerging diseases. As we push deeper into tropical forests and convert more land to agriculture and human settlements, the rate at which people encounter new pathogens that may trigger the next crisis will continue to increase.
The close connection between human health, environmental health and animal health is encapsulated in the concept of One Health. Global organisations are moving in the right direction by creating the One Health High-Level Expert Council to “collect, distribute and publicize reliable scientific information on the links between human, animal and environmental health”.
In this context, a high-level panel that included the President of the Republic of Costa Rica Alvarado Quesada and officials from the WWF, FAO and Global Environmental Facility at the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Marseilles discussed the link between conservation and agriculture and how land health can be achieved. Sustainable agriculture restores land health, conserves soil biodiversity and maintains ecosystems that provide many services to society, including climate regulation and water supply.
Prevention is better than cure. And less costly too. Harnessing the power of nature to protect health is not only smart. It is the path to sustainability.
Alice Ruhweza is the WWF Africa Region Director