Animal-borne diseases on the rise in Africa, WHO warns

The World Health Organization sounds the alarm. The number of zoonotic epidemics – of animal origin – has increased by 63% in Africa over the past decade, the WHO regional office said Thursday, warning of an increased risk due to population growth in Africa in particular. “Africa is at growing risk of outbreaks of diseases caused by zoonotic pathogens, such as the monkeypox virus that originated in animals before it changed species and infected humans,” WHO Africa wrote in a press release.

Between 2001 and 2022, the WHO listed “1,843 proven public health events” in Africa, 30% of which were epidemics of zoonoses. These numbers have increased over the past two decades, but “a particular peak was recorded in 2019 and 2020, when zoonotic pathogens accounted for about 50% of public health events”.

“Ebola virus disease and other viral hemorrhagic fevers make up nearly 70% of these epidemics, including dengue, anthrax, plague, monkey pox and a range of other diseases make up the remaining 30%,” the statement said.

Stepping up research and information sharing

The WHO gives several reasons for the increase in zoonoses. “Africa has the fastest growing population in the world and there is a growing demand for animal food,” she writes. “Population growth is also driving urbanization and degradation of wildlife habitats.”

In addition, she continues, “road, rail, sea and air connections (…) are improving, increasing the risk of epidemics spreading” from remote areas to large urban areas.

“We must act now to contain zoonoses before they can cause widespread infections and prevent Africa from becoming the epicenter of emerging infectious diseases,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. She recommends an intensification of research, as well as collaboration and information exchange between “diverse sectors, disciplines and communities”. “Only by breaking through the walls between disciplines can we address all aspects of the response,” she says.

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