On July 6, 1885, when Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against the Rabies virus, he brought into focus zoonotic diseases, or how animals can carry harmful germs that can spread to people and cause illnesses.
July 6 is celebrated as World Zoonoses Day.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, there is a renewed focus on ways to counter animal-transmitted diseases.
“One of the reasons for the spread of zoonotic diseases is the destruction of animal habitat and their displacement. The Nipah outbreak was the result of disturbing the habitat of bats so that they invaded the human space,” says Dr PK Sasidharan, retired Professor and Head of Medicine, Government Medical College, Kozhikode. He has spent three decades of working with infectious diseases, studying their causes, and treatment.
The many reasons
Dr. Neethu Susan Philip, microbiologist and Infection Control Officer, says that one of the challenges with COVID-19 is that we have not yet traced the origin of the virus correctly, though we know it started from a meat market in Wuhan.
To counter infections like COVID-19, a movement that stresses the need for a balanced, environmentally-friendly diet has begun across the world.
“From Ebola to COVID-19, there is a connect between consumption of meat and disease. The animal-man connect is clear,” say Parag Agarwal and Sethu Vaidyanathan, co-founders of Ahimsa Trust that runs the Plants Are Power campaign. It advocates the benefit of plant-based living for human, animal and environmental health.
They cite data from the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that 75% of new and emerging diseases are from animals.
An alarming factor
Dr Susan John, Clinical Epidemiologist, Rajagiri Hospital, Kochi, also talks about the transmission of disease-producing organisms from animal to man. “In the WHO’s list of top 10 diseases, the majority are zoonotic. This is a major concern,” says Susan.
The reasons for this animal-man transmission, she says, are due to deforestation, increased consumption of raw meats and mushrooming of urban settlements where people live in close proximity with domestic animals. In addition to these factors, “increased air travel leads to its spread,” she says.
In a 2019 research in the Department of Family Medicine at Government Medical College, Kozhikode, Sasidharan says that 98.5% people were not sure of what defined a balanced diet. “Humans are the only animals who do not know what to eat,” he says.
He has conceptualised the Social Health One Health Movement (SHOHM), based on the idea that human beings cannot be healthy unless the environment they live in (including plants and animal life) is healthy.
Launched during the lockdown, this movement aims at creating awareness on the environment. Started by a team of lawyers, doctors, architects and organic farming experts, it is led by Sasidharan.
The concept envisages a health pyramid in which every individual at the base has access to a balanced diet, safe drinking water, shelter with minimum comfort and good primary education.
The second component is a large body of family doctors. “Eighty per cent of doctors should work as family doctors. Every family should have a friend-philosopher-guide doctor who will be responsible for providing continuous and comprehensive care, irrespective of age and gender and working for promoting health and wellness,” says Sasidharan, adding that the third component is general hospitals. “Specialist doctors and hospitals should be less than 20%.”
Advocate MR Rajendran, President of SHOHM Trust, has undertaken the distribution of balanced diet kits to families in Ernakulam. “The kits consist of rice, legumes, leafy vegetables and fruits. We have identified children in 10-12 BPL families. Our objectives are to create awareness on the principle of one health of humans, plants, trees, animals and the environment,” says Rajendran.
An endorsement for their work recently came from Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who after meeting them, declared at a press conference the need for people to consume a diet that builds immunity against disease.