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Biodiversity and Preparedness for Pandemics

The frequency of disease outbreaks has been steadily increasing. Between1980 and 2013 there were 12,012 recorded outbreaks, comprising 44 million individual cases and affecting every country in the world. A number of trends have led to increasing frequency of disease outbreaks, including high levels of global travel, trade and connectivity, and high-density living - but the links to climate change and biodiversity are the most striking.

Deforestation has risen steadily over the past two decades and is linked to 31% of outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika and Nipah virus. Deforestation drives wild animals out of their natural habitats and closer to human populations, creating a greater opportunity for zoonotic disease spill over into humans. More broadly, climate change has altered and accelerated the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue fever and caused human displacement. Movement of large groups to new locations, often under poor conditions, increases displaced populations’ vulnerability to biological threats such as measles, malaria, diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections.

Pandemic Preparedness

Against this bleak outlook on the frequency of disease outbreaks, the good news is that the impacts of those outbreaks on human health seem to be declining because of medical breakthroughs and advances in public health systems. So far, these have contained the effects on morbidity and mortality through the success of countermeasures such as vaccines, antivirals and antibiotics, which greatly reduce the risk of massive loss of life.

The reality, however, might be much less rosy, as the last 20 years of disease outbreaks could also be viewed as a series of near-miss catastrophes, which has led to complacency instead of the increased vigilance that is needed to control outbreaks. Fortunately, the seriousness of the current COVID-19 situation has prompted key organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) - set up by the World Economic Forum in 2017 - to be prepared and to react to prevent the current epidemic from becoming a pandemic.

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