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Escaping the ‘Era of Pandemics’: Experts warn worse crises to come options offered to reduce risk

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Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, warns a major new report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world. 

Convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for an urgent virtual workshop about the links between degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks, the experts agree that escaping the era of pandemics is possible, but that this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention.

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities, says the report released on Thursday. It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds – of which up to 850,000 could have the ability to infect people.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.” 

Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report. 

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” 

“The fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics – while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.” 

 The report says that relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and technological solutions, in particular the rapid design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics, is a “slow and uncertain path”, underscoring both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy of reacting to pandemics. 

Pointing to the likely cost of COVID-19 of $8-16 trillion globally by July 2020, it is further estimated that costs in the United States alone may reach as high as $16 trillion by the 4th quarter of 2021. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.”

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are: 

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; predict high-risk areas; evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps. Such a council could also coordinate the design of a global monitoring framework.
  • Countries setting mutually-agreed goals or targets within the framework of an international accord or agreement – with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
  • Institutionalizing the ‘One Health’ approach in national governments to build pandemic preparedness, enhance pandemic prevention programs, and to investigate and control outbreaks across sectors.
  • Developing and incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects, while reforming financial aid for land-use so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted.
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics – this could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.
  • Reducing zoonotic disease risks in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental ‘health and trade’ partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of the illegal wildlife trade and improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.
  • Valuing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ engagement and knowledge in pandemic prevention programs, achieving greater food security, and reducing consumption of wildlife.
  • Closing critical knowledge gaps such as those about key risk behaviors, the relative importance of illegal, unregulated, and the legal and regulated wildlife trade in disease risk, and improving understanding of the relationship between ecosystem degradation and restoration, landscape structure and the risk of disease emergence.

Speaking about the workshop report, Dr. Anne Larigauderie, Executive Secretary of IPBES said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of science and expertise to inform policy and decision-making. Although it is not one of the typical IPBES intergovernmental assessments reports, this is an extraordinary peer reviewed expert publication, representing the perspectives of some of the world’s leading scientists, with the most up-to-date evidence and produced under significant time constraints.”

“We congratulate Dr. Daszak and the other authors of this workshop report and thank them for this vital contribution to our understanding of the emergence of pandemics and options for controlling and preventing future outbreaks. This will inform a number of IPBES assessments already underway, in addition to offering decision-makers new insights into pandemic risk reduction and options for prevention” she added.

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COVID-19 cases rise for first time in seven weeks

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A healthcare worker checks the temperature of a patient at a hospital in Nonthaburi Province, Thailand. UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

After six consecutive weeks of decline, COVID-19 cases worldwide increased last week for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday. 

Four of the agency’s six regions reported a rise in numbers, with Africa and the Western Pacific excluded. 

“This is disappointing, but not surprising”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking during his biweekly press briefing from Geneva. 

“Some of it appears to be due to relaxing of public health measures, continued circulation of variants, and people letting down their guard.” 

The jump in cases comes as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues. 

“Vaccines will help to save lives, but if countries rely solely on vaccines, they’re making a mistake”, Tedros warned, underscoring the importance of basic public health measures such as testing, contact tracing, wearing masks and avoiding crowds. 

‘Encouraging’ signs 

Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire began vaccinating health care workers on Monday, becoming the first countries to benefit from a global mechanism for ensuring vaccine equity.   

Through the COVAX Facility, WHO and our partners are working to ensure every country can begin vaccination within the first 100 days of the year.  

COVAX will deliver 11 million doses to countries this week.  By the end of May, some 240 million doses will be allocated to 142 participating countries. 

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, pointed to “encouraging” signs as the world continues to gear up for what is the largest vaccine deployment in history. 

“We’ve seen early data from countries where vaccination campaigns started months ago, the impact that this is having on reducing hospitalizations, reducing deaths, particularly in the older age groups, amongst the vulnerable. We’ve even seen very encouraging data in reduction in infections among health care workers who have received the vaccine”, she said. 

“So, these are still early days, but the signs are encouraging; the safety profile is encouraging. About 250 million doses have been given worldwide, and so far, there have been no major safety signals, so that is reassuring as well.” 

Concern for Tigray region 

WHO explained that some countries have received COVAX vaccines early due to several factors such as the level of government preparedness, but logistical challenges in distributing vaccines, which include labelling, packaging and shipping, can also affect deployment. 

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director, spoke about the difficulty in reaching conflict areas such as the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been fighting since November. 

He said the situation is of grave concern, as water, sanitation, essential health services and COVID-19 intervention have been disrupted. Many people are living in displacement camps, increasing risk of diarrhoeal disease, malaria and other illneses. 

WHO has worked to provide essential supplies to cover 450,000 people, or roughly 10 per cent of the population, for three months, Dr. Ryan told journalists.  

“Our primary aim as an organization, wherever we work, is to ensure that all people have access to the basic, essential human right of access to basic health care”, he said. 

“We will work with the Ministry of Health; we will work with health cluster partners and anybody else who can help us to provide better access to the population there.” 

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Over 500,000 people have been inoculated against COVID-19 in Moscow

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The number of people who wish to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Moscow has reached half a million, and over 500,000 of them have already received their first jab. Every day between 12,000 and 20,000 residents of the city sign up for vaccination.

Vaccines are being administered in 100 vaccination points in city polyclinics and 20 popular public places, where mobile teams have been deployed. The list of categories of citizens entitled to vaccination is constantly expanding and the city’s vaccination campaign is picking up pace.

The list of categories of citizens prioritized for vaccination also includes Muscovites over the age of 60 years old (who form the largest risk group and are most vulnerable to COVID-19). More than 9,000 residents of 33 retirement homes have already been vaccinated. In addition, vaccination is recommended for people with chronic diseases who need to stay at home, as well as college and university students over 18 years of age.

A convenient online vaccination appointments system has been set up specially for Muscovites in the mos.ru portal. It can be accessed by going to ‘Doctor’s Appointment’ in the list of services and selecting ‘Vaccination Against COVID-19’.

In addition, vaccine appointments can be made via the My Moscow mobile app, the Moscow Gosuslugi government services website and the emais.info medical services portal, as well as by calling a vaccination center. The vaccine is administered in two doses, with appointments for the second injection being made automatically.

Many large employers are requesting on-site vaccination of their staff, and this network will be gradually expanded. Naturally, the throughput capacity of such organizations and, most importantly, the employers’ wishes are being taken into account.

Detailed information on the vaccination program has also been posted in the portal’s special project.

The Sputnik V vaccine consists of two components requiring two injections, and provides a reliable immune response. Volunteers will first be injected with the first component of the vaccine, with a second vaccination following 21 days later. Only the first appointment needs to be booked, as the doctor will arrange the patient’s second visit on the day of their first vaccination. To ensure that people do not forget about their re-vaccination, they will receive an SMS message the day before it, reminding them of the date, time and clinic they need to attend.

The vaccination process takes at least an hour, including a 10-minute examination by a doctor before the vaccination and 15 minutes spent preparing the vaccine, which is stored in frozen state (with five doses in one vial) and thawed for five patients at once when they have been examined. Post-vaccination observation and examination take a further 30 minutes. Each patient receives a certificate recording the two injections and confirming that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vaccine was produced using a biotechnological process based on the most modern technological platform created by Russian scientists. It is safe because it does not contain the coronavirus. It is based on special structures (carrier vectors) created in the laboratory that contain only a part of the virus gene. Upon encountering the vaccine, the human immune system produces protective antibodies.

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Natalia Vodianova joins UNFPA to tackle stigma and advance women’s health

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Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova has been appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA. Photo: UNFPA

The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, on Wednesday appointed supermodel, philanthropist, and impact investor Natalia Vodianova as its newest Goodwill Ambassador, in an effort to empower women and girls, including fighting stigma surrounding menstruation.

“For too long, society’s approach to menstruation and women’s health has been defined by taboo and stigma”, said Ms. Vodianova, stressing that the situation “has undermined the most basic needs and rights of women.”

In her new role with UNFPA, officially known as the UN Population Fund, Ms. Vodianova will seek to help culturally redefine menstruation, as a normal bodily function.

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 are actively menstruating. In many countries, taboos surrounding the cycle leaves girls vulnerable and can even be life-threatening, says UNFPA, as they are excluded from public life, denied opportunities, sanitation and basic health needs.

Major mission

The agency said in a press release, that the issue has been starved of the attention it deserves, but in recent years that has started to change, and “achieving this, is central to UNFPA’s mandate”.

“It’s a tragic irony that something as universal as menstruation can make girls feel so isolated…We all have a role to play in breaking the taboos around menstruation”, said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem, underscoring the significance of spotlighting the damage caused.

She added that the agency “is pleased to partner with such a powerful and committed advocate. Societies prosper when girls are confident, empowered and making their own decisions!”

Building on past momentum

Over the past three years, Ms. Vodianova has teamed up with UNFPA to launch a series of “Let’s Talk” events worldwide, which have mobilised policy makers, civil society and the private sector to help tackle shame, exclusion and discrimination, faced routinely by millions of women and girls.

Leaders from various sectors such as fashion, politics, sport, technology and media have also gathered in Turkey, Kenya, Switzerland, Belarus and India to advance women’s health.

Raised in poverty by a single mother in Russia, along with caring for a half-sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, Ms.Vodianova is a passionate advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights and the rights of people living with disabilities, UNFPA noted.

The agency said it was looking forward to working with her in her role as a bridge builder across the fashion and technology industries, where she’s an influential international voice, to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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