Why the Modern World Is a Breeding Ground for New Viruses
Increased rates of obesity, high population density, and increased interaction with potentially infected animals have raised the rate of disease in the modern world. Learn about the history of disease and why outbreaks can occur.
The History of Disease Outbreaks
Between the 1900s and the 2000s, there were several life-changing epidemics and pandemics that spread throughout the world:
- The Spanish flukilled over 50 million people worldwide and infected over one-third of the world’s population. This deadly pandemic strain lasted from 1918 to 1919 and was one of the most devastating diseases since the bubonic plague.
- Ebola is one of the deadliest viral diseases of all time and causes fatal hemorrhagic fevers, with no vaccine or cure. It was discovered in 1976 in Africa, with another major outbreak occurring from 2014 to 2016.
- HIV and AIDS crossed from chimpanzees to humans in the 1970s and spread to nearly 38 million people by 2020. Those with HIV can take treatments to make the virus undetectable.
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was discovered in 2003 in Asia and affected 8,098 individuals. It is a type of coronavirus.
- COVID-19 spread worldwide in 2020 and infected over 34 million individuals in the United States alone. Over 175 million people were infected across all countries. This virus is thought to have originated in bats.
Before the 20th century, scientists had created vaccines for many deadly diseases such as measles, polio, chickenpox, influenza, and hepatitis A and B.
Nevertheless, the 20th and 21st centuries presented the world with new pandemics (some are untreatable, such as Ebola, or uncurable, such as HIV). A number of these diseases and viruses spread from animals to humans.
Pandemics occur roughly once per century, according to the “Brief History of Pandemics” published by the NCBI in 2019. However, the 21st century has already seen several pandemics, from SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2015, dengue fever in 2016, and COVID-19 in 2020.
There are more than double the number of infectious diseases in the 21st century compared to the 20th century, and the trend is expected to continue.
The World Health Organization (WHO) created a list of nine diseases that have “epidemic potential,” including a “Disease X” that is currently unknown but expected in the future. Many of these epidemic diseases have no vaccines or cures or have insufficient countermeasures.
Causes of Outbreaks
Many infectious diseases are transferred through human to animal contact. An article from the Smithsonian notes that 60% of infectious diseases originate from animals.
Coronaviruses, influenza, the bubonic plague, malaria, Zika virus, rabies, HIV, and Ebola all originated from animals and are deadly to humans in many cases.
Exterminating or displacing animals from their wild habitats may only make the problem worse. By pushing animals from their natural habitats, animals are forced into contact with more humans.
Factors That Exacerbate Outbreaks
Human behavior, poor sanitation, and lack of preventative steps have the potential to exacerbate outbreaks and spread them worldwide.
An article published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that there are several key factors that can turn a single virus into an epidemic:
- Human population dynamics: Population density, cultural norms (such as hugging and flying long distances), and poor sanitation in large areas can give disease ample opportunities to spread.
- Changes in insect populations: Insects such as mosquitos spread viral diseases. As the insects migrate across country borders, the disease can spread to a whole new continent of individuals.
- Weather and climate change: Severe weather may cause animals to seek shelter in nearby buildings, which can spread disease to humans also inhabiting those buildings.
- Technology: New technology allows individuals to travel further and expose themselves to new infections and diseases.
- Virus mutations: Some viruses change and adapt to new conditions constantly, such as the flu virus, allowing for new outbreaks.
To stop disease outbreaks, populations must be prepared to change human behavior and combat diseases when they emerge.
The future outlook of disease occurrence depends on how individuals and communities interact with animals. Because the majority of diseases originate from animals, humans must avoid urbanizing animal habitats and displacing animals into neighborhoods and communities.
However, it’s likely that the human population will continue to grow, displacing thousands of potentially infected animals into communities worldwide. Additionally, a study suggests that human reliance on large-scale factory farming could introduce new disease outbreaks in the near future.
Humans create more opportunities every year for spillover events to occur.
Options for Preventing Future Outbreaks
Individuals and communities can begin today to prevent future outbreaks by making small changes in their lifestyles and advocating for changes to public policy. Here are three ways to prevent a future outbreak.
Improve Public Access to Accurate Healthcare Information
Not all communities have access to public health information.
For example, the first outbreak of Ebola in 1976 infected 318 individuals and had a fatality ratio of 88%. As family members cared for one another, they became exposed to the deadly disease. If the community had had access to public health information about the disease, they could have prevented the disease from spreading to other communities.
Increase Health and Fitness
Obesity can cause heart disease, diabetes, and an impaired immune system. According to the CDC, 42.4% of the U.S. population is obese, making the population highly susceptible to a future outbreak.
Disease prevention should focus on health and fitness. Overweight or obese individuals must adopt healthy lifestyles to lose weight. Eating a diet rich in leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables can help individuals lose weight.
Individuals should eat balanced meals and avoid eating the traditional American diet. Taking B12 supplements and other health supplements can help individuals improve their immune systems and limit the spread of disease.
Prevent Zoonotic Outbreaks
A study published in the widely-known science journal “Nature” notes that almost all recent pandemics were zoonotic (originating from animals). A huge step in preventing the next major disease outbreak is creating regulation between animal and human contact, placing regulation on large-scale factory farming, and creating safe habitats for animals.