If a pandemic were a person, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear infuriated fellow Ghanaians admonishing, “Let this be your first and last!” The pandemic would surely reply, “Impossible! This is not my first—in the first place—and it cannot be my last.” Most scientists believe COVID-19 may continue to be an unwelcome companion humanity would have to learn to walk with like we have done with HIV. While still, experts toil tirelessly in search of an antidote to the present predicament let us be reminded of the next pandemic which is hovering around waiting anxiously to strike.
I am almost certain about the origin of the next pandemic, and it has nothing to do with China or Africa. I will tell you where but for now forget about geography and let’s do a little history. You might have already learnt about some pandemics and how they devastated the world in the past. Perhaps, that was to reassure you that this too shall pass or from a pessimist point of view to let you know that the worst can happen. There is one component of the historical narrative of epidemics and pandemics which you might not have paid much attention to—animals! When the Black Death is mentioned, it is the 70-200 million deaths that come to mind. Similarly, the Spanish flu, the Hong Kong flu and Severe acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) all evoke some scary death tolls. The involvement of rats in the spread of the Black Death, the role of birds and pigs in the flu pandemics and the involvement of bats in SARS may easily be overlooked.
Scientists say that of any ten infectious diseases of human beings, seven of them come from animals and more alarmingly, four out of any five new and emerging infectious diseases of human beings come from animals. Purposefully or otherwise we interact with animals in countless ways. Both domestic animals and wild animals harbour certain pathogens that can cause diseases in human beings or have the potential to cause human diseases in future. Diseases that are transmissible between human beings and animals are known as zoonotic diseases. With this said, shall we revisit the subject of the origin of the next pandemic? Even the worst guesser can predict with so much confidence that the next pandemic is likely to be zoonotic.
It is high time we reconsidered the place of animal health in our society. If a disease like rabies which is vaccine-preventable and one of the oldest diseases known, still persists and claims thousands of lives annually, then it will be ludicrous to think that we are ready to face new ones. That animals and human beings live in a shared environment is the reason why the approach to solving health problems needs to be holistic involving animal, human and environmental health expertise. This collaboration constitutes what is known as the One Health approach. To effectively work more closely together to achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring optimal health for humans, the various disciplines involved should be built to full capacity. The animal health sector, particularly, must receive the needed support to be able to deal with existing zoonotic health problems and detect zoonotic threats early enough for the necessary actions to be taken.
The next pandemic may be deadlier than what we are seeing today but the good news is that it can easily be averted through the One Health approach. Ghana is blessed with a number of astute veterinarians and related professionals with great interest in One Health. Some of their research findings are worth considering in making health decisions as a nation and their efforts towards the control of existing zoonotic diseases need the support not only of government but of every citizen as well. It involves responsible pet ownership, obeying wildlife regulations, seeking and following veterinary advice on food and companion animals, following animal movement protocols, keeping the environment clean and taking care of our own health. Yes, together we reduce the next pandemic to a character in an untold fiction.
Student, University of Ghana School of Veterinary Medicine
Host, One Health Podcast.