Thailand registers the emergence of two zoonotic outbreaks


In the last month, Thailand registered the emergence of two zoonotic disease outbreaks; they have already killed thousands of farm animals. Together, lumpy skin disease and Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) have infected around 7,200 cows and killed more than 200 pigs this year.


Lumpy skin disease outbreak in cows and water buffaloes was first reported in Thailand in March of this year. This is believed to be the first time that the disease has been found in Thailand. Apart from causing lumpy skin as its name suggests, this virus causes fever and reduced fertility and appetite.


Another zoonotic virus has also been causing suffering in farm animals. PRRS, a viral disease in pigs, impairs the reproductive and respiratory systems and was first reported in a pig farm in Lamphun Province in September of last year. The latest news about this virus shows that it hit Kalasin Province last month; thirty-eight 2-month-old piglets were killed and disposed of on the farm. Because there's no specific treatment for PRRS, pigs are often killed despite the absence of symptoms to ensure the virus does not spread to other farms. So far, there are no registered spillover cases of either disease to humans.


What does this mean to humanity?


Although the Department of Livestock has ordered vaccines for lumpy skin disease and announced stopping the lumpy skin disease outbreak, the emergence of these two zoonotic diseases reminds us that, since before Covid-19, scientists and specialists worldwide have warned that new critical diseases could arise from factory farms. In some cases, it could represent the "perfect breeding ground" for new pandemics.


Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, meaning they start spreading among animals first before spilling over to humans. A most shocking example is the 1998 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. The Nipah virus spread from wild bats to farmed pigs in northern Peninsular Malaysia. When it eventually spread to humans, its mortality rate was significantly higher (40%–70%) than in pigs.


And the list goes on. Some more examples are swine and bird/avian flu, mad cow disease, Ebola, and even HIV/AIDS, which was traced back to the hunting of chimps several decades ago. With the global expansion of factory farms into wildlife habitats and the jamming animals in tinier and tinier unsanitary spaces, the outbreak of new infectious diseases of pandemic scale is highly probable.


An alternative path to the future


The more reliant humanity is on animals to produce food, the riskier its future will be. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that factors like agricultural intensification, increased demand for animal protein, deforestation, and climate change could lead to new pandemics.


There are alternatives, however. To reduce the risk of another pandemic, we need to build a more sustainable food system less dependent on animals. And as studies show, preventing new pandemics by changing our food systems could be a hundred times cheaper than responding to them, as we have been doing with Covid-19.