Why our best defense against future pandemics is data

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Scientists in Thailand are working to combat zoonoses at their source. The COVID-19 pandemic shows “close” links between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems as zoonotic diseases spread between animals and humans, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on February 21. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) via UN News

EDINBURGH, Scotland, May 24th 2021 (IPS) – Although the World Health Organization (WHO) mission to discover its origins has proven inconclusive, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for better care, attention and investment in animal health systems.

Without a decisive change in course to prevent other diseases from crossing species boundaries, we are unlikely to be able to avoid the pandemics of the future, which could prove even more serious and destructive.

According to a UN report, 75 percent of emerging infections in humans are shared with animals, and these emerging zoonoses could just as easily spread or mutate to cause the next pandemic.

Investing in a stronger and more resilient global animal health system is a clear win-win: It protects all people through the prevention, monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of otherwise dangerous animal diseases – before they cross species and borders.

Investment alone, however, will not overcome the fact that our current animal health systems are adversely affected by deficiencies in one crucial area: data.

Poor, disparate, under-researched, and inaccurate data on animal health problems prevent officials and authorities in many parts of the world from taking effective action against emerging animal diseases. Such restrictions put human and animal health at risk and leave us all vulnerable to the threat of future pandemics.

In order to improve our current defense against emerging animal diseases, the world must invest in a more targeted and targeted manner in the systematic collection, organization and use of existing animal health data.

First, we need more and better animal health data. This includes increased monitoring of animal diseases on farms, at border crossings and in damp markets, all of which are important interfaces through which animal diseases can spread to humans.

Second, we also need to make sure we are making better use of our existing data. For example, SEBI-Livestock uses advanced computer science to extract insights from inaccessible data on disease prevalence and mortality and make them more accessible to decision-makers and scientists in the global south.

In addition, a better standard of data exchange is needed in the fight against future global health threats. Mechanisms and platforms for doctors and veterinarians, governments and health authorities to share knowledge about emerging diseases and treatments are vital.

A visual tool developed by the Safe Medicines for Animals project as part of the SMArt (Regulatory Training) project helps animal health companies manage complex regulatory processes and opens the door to improved animal health and, consequently, human health around the world.

Finally, more investment is needed to help decision-makers take advantage of this wide range of data for the livestock sector in low-income countries. Low-income countries are disproportionately affected by neglected zoonoses and the effects of epidemics and pandemics in these regions are exacerbated, as Covid-19 shows.

Providing data literacy and data analysis training, and raising awareness of global animal health resources, will be critical to helping low-income countries harness valuable data for greater resilience.

While data alone is not enough, with more investment we can build the knowledge and resources we need to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases.

For this reason, the Action for Animal Health Coalition has joined groups like the World Veterinary Association, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Brooke and SEBI-Livestock to call for more support for better and safer animal health systems around the world.

With the knowledge and lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic in mind, we are now at an important crossroads.

We can choose to ignore animal health and thereby continue to put human health at risk, or we can start really focusing on and investing in better animal health systems using data as a guide to our interventions.

If we follow this path, we can begin to defeat the pandemics of the future before they even begin.

* Prof. Andy Peters is Program Director, the Center to Support Evidence-Based Interventions in Farm Animals (SEBI-Livestock) at the University of Edinburgh



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