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7 disease outbreaks that started with animal consumption

The world is frightened by the tragic advances of Covid-19 in the world. In just a few months, there have been more than 88.538 deaths especially in China and Italy, and no expectation of ending so soon.

Have you ever stopped to think about how this ended up being one of the biggest pandemics in the last few decades? A live animal market in the province of Wuhan, in China, in which people bought all sorts of animals to eat, was determined to be the source. But did you know this is not the first time animal exploitation and consumption has led to a serious disease outbreak? We'll show you some of them:

COVID-19 We should not forget that the pandemic that is currently shocking the world had a key factor, a live animal market where animals are sold for human consumption, in China. So far, in only a few weeks, there have been more than 88.538 deaths and almost 500,000 infected people.

HIV/AIDS The most accepted theory about the origins of HIV is that the first humans infected were hunters. Somehow, while butchering chimps, they came into contact with blood or body fluids, infecting themselves through open wounds on their skin. Decades later, in 2018, 37.9 million people globally were living with HIV, a virus that can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is linked to a progressive weaker immune system, opening opportunity for opportunistic infections and cancers to thrive.

Salmonella Nearly one in three foodborne outbreaks in the EU in 2018 were caused by Salmonella, a bacteria that can even kill. The disease is generally transmitted to humans through the consumption of contaminated food of animal origin, mainly meat, poultry, eggs and milk.

Escherichia coli E.Coli is a harmless bacteria present in our gastrointestinal tracts. However, some virulent strains can cause serious food poisoning. The reservoir of one of the E.Coli's most studied strain, that may lead to hemorrhagic diarrhea, and to kidney failure, is mainly cattle, which explain why the bacteria is transmitted to humans primarily through consumption of contaminated foods, such as raw, undercooked or curated meat products and dairy. Good hygienic slaughtering practices reduce contamination of carcasses by feces, but do not guarantee the absence of E.Coli from products.

Swine flu H1N1, H1N2, H2N1, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3 are all types of viruses found in pigs raised for meat. The 2009 pandemic started in April in the USA and Mexico, and worldwide more than 214 countries and overseas territories or communities have reported of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009, including over 18449 deaths. This number refers only to laboratory-confirmed cases; studies estimate this number could be in reality more than 15 times higher.

Bird Flu (avian flu) Similarly to the swine flu, this is an influenza virus adapted to birds. Between 1996 and 2008, HPAI viruses, the most known among the avian flu, emerged at least 11 times. Studies show that the emergence of new outbreaks is directly related to poultry production, much intensified due to commercial demand. To give you an idea, during the ‘90s the world’s poultry population grew by 76% in developing countries.

Photo: Andrew Skowron

Mad cow disease It is a disease that makes cow's brains look spongy and severely compromises their neurological system. Mad Cow disease is caused by an abnormal version of a protein called a prion, and cows get it when, for example, parts of a cow not eaten by humans are given as food to other cows. Humans who eat meat contaminated with the central nervous system tissue get infected with a mad cow disease called variant CJD, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which kills within a year by destroying human brain cells. In 2019, 232 people got the disease and, unfortunately, they all died.

It can happen for many reasons. Either because of the intensification of animal agriculture, in extreme confinement and poor sanitary conditions; the rising use of antibiotics in animal agriculture; increasing the resistance to these substances; either because of the consumption of wild animals that carry serious diseases; or because of deforestation caused by animal farming, that exposes us more to wild animals.

But one thing is for sure: if we don't stop exploiting and consuming animals, it's likely that situations like this will happen each time more often. Please help the world become a safer place for everyone.


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