Diseases Traveling from Animals to Humans Expected to Soar

Nov 29, 2023

Illness caused by diseases transferred from animals to humans likely will be far more frequent in the coming years. And it could result in 12 times as many deaths in 2050 as in 2020, a new study suggests.

Four types of these so-called “spillover” viral epidemics (SVEs) are rising at a “(very high) rate,” researchers found. Climate change and deforestation are likely the culprits in this troubling trend.

Experts from biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks studied more than 3,150 disease outbreaks that traveled from animals to humans between 1963 and 2019. They observed 75 SVEs in 24 countries. Those events caused more than 17,000 deaths. Most of them were in Africa. The study was published in the journal BMJ Global Health. But it did not include the COVID-19 outbreak.

A major portion of modern disease outbreaks have been caused by illnesses that travel from animals to humans. They're known as zoonotic diseases. Most coronaviruses are zoonotic. And most scientists believe COVID-19 began this way. Animal diseases can spread to humans in many ways. These include through bites from insects like ticks or mosquitoes. Direct contact with sick animals is also a way. So is consuming food or water contaminated by sick animals.

What's even more troubling? Experts said the likely death numbers might be underestimated. That’s because scientists were super strict with the guidelines for pathogens that they studied.

Researchers also found that the number of SVEs has been rising by nearly 5% yearly over the time frame studied. They found the number of reported deaths has increased by 8.7% yearly, too.

“What is clear,” the study’s authors wrote, ”is that urgent action is needed to address a large and growing risk to global health."

Photo from Unsplash courtesy of Fusion Medical Animation.

Refect: Why might it be important to understand the different ways that diseases can spread to humans? 

Based on the details in the story, the increase in spillover viral epidemics is linked to factors such as _______. (Common Core RI.5.1; RI.6.1)
a. decreasing animal populations and habitat conservation efforts
b. strict health regulations in affected regions
c. the use of advanced medical technology to combat diseases
d. climate change and deforestation
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