We need to fundamentally transform our relationship with the natural world to reduce the risk of disease

Stop The Wildlife Trade: Stricter controls on global wildlife trade and live animal markets will help keep societies healthy

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema
Friday 10 April 2020 22:30 BST
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The WHO and governments globally are facing pleas to halt the sale of animals in unhygienic conditions and wildlife trade

While Covid-19 demands immediate action, there also needs to be a long-term vision; one that enables us to fundamentally transform our relationship with the natural world to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Human health is intimately interconnected with the health of our planet and how we manage the life-sustaining resources that biodiversity and ecosystems provide. But human activities disturb both the structure and functioning of ecosystems.

Many of the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss also amplify disease risk: large-scale deforestation; habitat conversion and fragmentation; agricultural and livestock intensification; the unregulated trade in species used as food and medicine, and the overharvesting of species to the brink of extinction; as well as anthropogenic climate change. These interacting pressures create the conditions for potential new diseases to emerge, re-emerge and spread.

Global wildlife trade and live animal markets, where live fish, meat and wild animals are sold, are important risk factors for zoonotic – which are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people – spillover. Accordingly, measures taken by countries to reduce the number of live animals in food markets can significantly reduce the risk of disease outbreaks. Stricter controls on the sale and consumption of wild species, and implementation of the International Health Regulations, must also be scaled up globally.

However, a blanket ban of the trade, farming and consumption of wild species, or a “clamp down” of wet markets, would not, altogether, eliminate the risk of future zoonotic spillover. These markets sustain the livelihoods of millions of people and many others rely on wild foods as a critical source of food security and nutrition, in particular in low-income rural areas and communities. Under some conditions, a blanket ban may even generate new opportunities for diseases to emerge. For example, it may inadvertently exacerbate risk, by driving an underground market for the illegal trade of species used as food and medicine.

Reducing biodiversity loss has long-term benefits for humans, ecosystems and animal health. The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD) has worked closely for many years with the World Health Organisation (WHO), and a wide range of partners, to promote whole-of-government, whole-of-society integrated approaches, that prioritise prevention.

At its last conference, the CBD parties adopted biodiversity-inclusive “One Health” guidance to assist countries in implementing such integrated, interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches to health. One Health, as described by WHO, is an approach to designing and implementing policies in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.

Concerted cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary action can be embedded in the next 10-year global framework for biodiversity – currently being negotiated among countries through the CBD process – to build the resilience needed to address our inter-related environmental, health and development challenges.

The fight against Covid-19 is bringing to the forefront an unprecedented sense of collective solidarity, shared purpose and common humanity. We will need to harness these positive forces to achieve the shared and interdependent goals of healthy societies and a healthy planet.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is acting executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity which is linked to the UN Environment Programme

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