The role of infectious zoonotic diseases as a connecting element for the Sustainable Development Goals

Someone once asked me, “Isn’t sustainable development an oxymoron?” Now, before you are filled to the brim with contempt for this person, it was only a half-serious but quite valid question with a point to be made. The way that we define and practice sustainable development would be very important to know and understand first to be able to tackle this question. And in any case, what is the use of blind dismissiveness? Let us consider this. Human problems were the main thrust of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and many of these goals are not looking so good even as it gets nearer to 2015. With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), human problems are central to the goals, but other connected issues may find their way into the playbill. One of these is the threat of pandemic infectious diseases originating in animals (also known as zoonotic disease) by way of the goals for biodiversity, sustainable consumption, and food security. Linking the goals by integrating them on specific issues such as infectious disease can provide a shift in thinking and approach to sustainable development that had not been considered before.

Linking food security, biodiversity and sustainable consumption

Animal protein is an increasingly larger portion of the diets of people in the world who are increasingly able to afford more of it. It is also one of the major resources traded globally. With that in mind, also consider that many of the new infectious disease that are emerging nowadays are coming from animals. This is not to say that we should get rid of animals, especially not the wildlife that may naturally have many diseases circulating through their populations. Straight culling of animals that may or may not harbor harmful-to-humans infectious disease would not ensure that an outbreak or emergence event will not occur. For instance, some pathogens are transferred by the bodily fluids of animals and starting a massive culling project would expose many workers to the animals and the pathogens. Then there is the problem of disposing of the animals. And not to forget, the importance of these animals for the ecosystem and biodiversity warrants protection, not destruction.

Infectious diseases are a part of the natural ecosystem. It is when they cross boundaries (physical or biological) or combine into new strains that they may be most dangerous and scary. Many diseases that are highly infectious in humans barely affect the animals they regularly circulate in. To achieve sustainability, we should understand the dynamics of infectious disease transmission, how they emerge locally, and how they spread globally. On top of that, we need to embrace the role of humans in the process and how human systems, such as intensification of livestock production and global trade of wild and domestic animals, may potentially be contributing to the risk of disease emergence or reemergence. Other human activities like hunting and butchering of wildlife increase the frequency of contact between humans and animals, and also present an interface for disease transmission or exchange. While many of the most threatening infectious diseases may be passed from domestic animals to humans, pathogens can also be passed between domestic and wild animal populations. This allows for mixing, and may lead to a perfect storm for new pathogens to emerge.

To further contemplate the role of people in the emergence or spread of infectious diseases, it is important to note that human activities are driving forces for some of the factors leading to such emergence or spread, such as increased contact between humans and wildlife as a result of roads made by logging companies through forests. To protect biodiversity by conserving natural areas (as opposed to building roads and developing the land for agriculture or other purposes) is to also prevent new interfaces for contact between humans and wildlife, and domestic animals and wildlife. Similarly, the sustainable consumption goal may call for farming methods that make the most of already converted land, avoiding the clearing of forests for new agricultural operations. By minimizing contact, we may reduce the frequency of pathogen exchange and thereby lower the chance of a pathogen with pandemic potential making it into humans. Finally, food security itself encompasses the human interest in biodiversity and land as resources, and so can be considered an overarching goal to frame the others.

To be economically relevant

Globalization is often cited as one of the main forces for shaping modern interactions and global issues. It is not as simple as human greed versus the greater good. What has allowed the world’s societies to function the way that they have is the potential for converting natural resources to marketable goods. We could attempt to return to a hunter and gatherer society and live off the land like our ancestors did, but we cannot possibly ask the world’s population to do this and give up the lifestyle that many have lived and died for. We will also find it hard to continue to prosper while simultaneously minimizing the damages to the environment and living things. Unless…we somehow find a middle ground between completely giving up what we have worked hard to achieve and maintain, in terms of lifestyle and quality of life, and acknowledging that we cannot continue in the direction and at the pace that we have the past several decades.

Part of the issue with finding this middle ground is that of perspective. Although we may not be able to promise hamburgers and fries for dinner for the entire world’s population, we can attempt to manage expectations and risks. Remember that infectious disease is a natural part of the ecosystem, and may never be fully eradicated. In turn, diseases are a normal part of animal raising and trading. They are a real concern for large and small operations alike, though perhaps in different ways. Higher intensity livestock production, driven by demand for animal protein, puts all of the animals at risk for higher rates of disease. An outbreak within an animal population in an enclosed area can mean complete loss of economic value of those animals. Not only that, outbreaks on farms and in markets can have an overall effect on demand as well as perceptions of disease risk held by the general public which can have long lasting effects. Such outbreaks can lead to a dip in animal trade industry, and large losses in tourism especially if the disease crosses over into humans. Emerging infectious diseases, such as bird flu, have a critical economic impact and call for a better understanding of disease dynamics and prevention.

To be socially relevant

What of the social element? How do social systems link these issues together? Well, as social may be defined in different ways, the ultimate question in all of this is what do people care about, and subsequently how do people make the decision whether to care or not. The human brain may not be able to fully understand and sympathize with something as abstract and far away to themselves, for example the chronically disease ridden areas in Africa, but it may be able to comprehend the shared, immediate risk of a global pandemic. The local threat becomes a global one. What makes us all the same is that we are all vulnerable in the situation of a pandemic, and this makes it easier to care about what is happening with infectious diseases in other parts of the world.

What has not been helpful, however, is the occasional overblown press by the media which does not accurately portray the situation or convey understanding of actual risk. Scientific literacy is low in some countries, and sensational headlines are not making that any better. Add onto that the difference between understanding enough to recognize a threat to yourself versus understanding enough to recognize the bigger picture implications and threats, and now we have a complex situation with misalignment of interests. Advancement of agricultural and livestock practices has allowed distancing of the average First World citizen from food production and natural disease processes within it. This distance is only magnified by some cultural tendencies to hide the fact that what we are eating is an animal and that it most likely came from a farm where it lived in close proximity with many other animals. If we continue to refuse this inherent link between how we raise and trade animals and the risk of disease to humans, the next pandemic originating in animals could very well be the great unifying common “enemy” for all global citizens.

To be politically relevant

Political will…that is another key term that strikes at the heart of this matter. Whether or not the stars are aligned properly for political action to take place, these issues will remain what they are. A lack of political will may characterize any type of tragedy of the commons, when a common good or resource is continually exploited by individuals to the detriment of the whole group. But, there is hope for the rest of us who still believe in change. Biodiversity alone has not consistently proven to be reason enough for political action, specifically to conserve land and resources. For whatever reasons, it may never be enough on its own, but paired with the double issues of food security and sustainable consumption in the context of risk for emerging infectious disease, the persons in power may find it compelling enough to pay more attention.

In many cases, political leaders cannot afford to sit back if there is a natural disaster, such as a disease outbreak. They are often working for the vote of the people and/or for prestige and power on the world stage. Though this might be an oversimplification, it boils down to power: how to obtain it, retain it, and multiply it. To be perceived as incompetent in the face of such a challenge as an outbreak of an infectious disease could potentially be devastating to the reputation of a politician or even to a nation. This can be a powerful motivator, and hopefully will create some political will.

Closing thoughts

When it comes down to it, humans are part of the global ecosystem, and all of the human-created systems function within that global system. The issues of our time are not neatly distilled into containers where each can be dealt with alone, but our frame of thinking and approach to them often treat them as such. This is not a new notion by all means, but with the SDGs comes a new opportunity to realize a better version of integrated thinking and interdisciplinarity. It is not enough to settle into the false trichotomy that you must be either people-focused or profit-focused, or environment-focused. To defy this trichotomy could be slated as the main objective in the role of infectious diseases as a connecting element for the SDGs targeting food security, biodiversity, and sustainable consumption. It is something that requires a long term outlook paired with a sense of local threat, and forgoes the type of urgency that is far too fleeting to be sustainable.

A few questions have come to mind:

  • Will economic advancement and trade necessarily be at odds with biodiversity?
  • Will we be able to meet the animal protein demands of an exploding population sustainably and without increasing the rate of disease emergence?
  • How do we compensate for misalignment of objectives, especially between and among government agencies and international organizations?
  • Can we reconcile economic ambitions with the public good (in this case, being free from infectious disease)?

I do not have answers to these questions, but I do know that the hope for the future is on us to be able to take hold of what the implications of the SDGs are and how they may be a step forward in action as well as in thinking. What will set this generation of goals apart is the forethought to put these together in concerted effort. So, do I consider sustainable development to be an oxymoron? I think that we have the power to make that statement untrue, and it must start with our intentions and perspective.

It is inherently part of our nature to view the world and it’s problems from our own point of view, and it is all just a matter of scale. What might be a daily concern for someone living in one part of the world may not even be part of the mental scope of someone living in another. Sometimes we forget that those of us living in the developed world have the privilege of not having to worry if there will be food available for our next meal, or whether the water we drink is clean, or where our money is kept (safe). The threat of infectious disease that can become a global pandemic is a serious one. We are seeing new diseases every year, and the impact is not just on public health. Trade and tourism suffer greatly, as well as public perception and trust of health surveillance systems. An unlikely but true connection can be drawn to link to sustainability and development, and what that means in this globalized age is constantly changing. By integrating our approach to infectious diseases as they relate to these specific SDGs, we can change the shape of sustainable development and veer away from the territory of oxymoron.

[This essay was written as an entry for the International Dimensions Human Programme (IDHP) Writing Contest.]

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