Making Zoonoses Prevention Part of the National Public Health Agenda

There are diseases that affect only livestock and there are diseases that transmit to humans. In both cases, costs of preventing major animal diseases are far less than those that emanate from managing the aftermath of the outbreaks. And if you were to add to this the benefit-cost ratio of investing in prevention and control, the large-scale impact on public health, food security, poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development and social equity and stability would be manifold. This worrisome scenario, especially in a developing country like India then necessitates a more structured human and animal disease prevention and control strategy.

Living as we do, in a complex ecosystem, we must adapt our surveillance strategies as we learn more about pathogens, their vectors and reservoirs. Temporal and spatial relationships should cause us to change our strategies as diseases advance. Logically, different strategies should apply in areas where emergence is complete than in areas where disease is emerging or yet unknown.

In recent years, emerging diseases have cast a wide net of fear with new infections breaking into human populations. Some of these diseases, once transmitted to humans, have the potential to create pandemics, like the A/H1N1 virus. Numerous reasons have been cited for this trend, most significant being the increase in number of people on the planet and their movement across locations.

Contributory Factors

In 1900, there were 750 million people on earth. Now there are 6.2 billion. This staggering growth has pushed people into previously untouched corners of the world, where many have come face-to-face with new animals and their indigenous pathogens. Partly because of this population growth, farmers are raising a lot more livestock in crowded spaces and adding new animals to the food supply since traditional stocks are being depleted.

In many countries people and animals are intermingling in large urban markets which are usually in restricted spaces, increasing chances of infection and disease outbreak.

It is estimated that over 60% of all new human diseases are zoonotic and that over 70% of these originate with wildlife and people having close contact with pets (especially exotic pets), wild animals or livestock or their food products. Studies in recent years have revealed a pattern of dangerous, even fatal, emerging new human diseases resulting from genetic mutations of known pathogens previously thought dead-ended in non-humans.

India Situation

Zoonotic diseases are most common in rural areas, but are found in urban areas too. India’s urban population is expected to double by 2020 and so is the urban slum population. The impact of these diseases is however greatest on poor householders which are least likely to have their family members or animals diagnosed and treated, resulting in loss to livelihood and productivity.

Current strategies targeted towards prevention and control of zoonoses fail to recognise the ‘big picture’, and are limited by traditional paradigms of pathogen-specific measures. These measures often operate within line departments of human or animal health, with the wildlife sector and its interplay with other sectors often lagging behind.

Zoonoses prevention and control programmes are a classic example of a changing and expanding set of diseases that fall too often between the cracks of public health, environmental management, public safety and veterinary fields. Technical capacity constraints, lack of research-informed policy-making, and irregular surveillance continue to limit pandemic preparedness plans.

In the last few years, there has been a realisation on the part of the government and the health agencies around the inter-connectedness of the various sectors and the need to have coordinated action. Solutions to better health and disease control have therefore demanded a unified “One Health” approach linking human, domestic animal, wildlife and environmental sectors.

Suggested Next Steps

One of the obstacles is detection and identification of disease syndromes. Lack of documentation of clinical suspicion and the difficulty in recognising the causes is delaying the identification of these new diseases. The detection and follow-up study of the infection's epidemiology will require huge investments and improvements in research.

While efforts are underway through various interntional organisations (WHO, FAO, OIE) and others in the health community, a lot more needs to be done to combat what has become a ‘World problem’.

Recognising the urgency and need for stronger coordination between sectors, the “Roadmap to Combat Zoonoses in India Initiative” (RCZI) was launched in June 2008, with the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) as the national nodal agency. Core technical partners of the initiative include PHFI, University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University (NCSU) & RTI International.

RCZI Initiative

RCZI engages experts from human and animal health, wildlife, vector bionomics, social and environmental sciences, and research, academic and implementation agencies in public, private and technical arenas in India. The initiative aims at specific outcomes for a system-wide collaboration for mutual benefit and measures that would complement and feed into the mainstream systems. It will explore newer paradigms and approaches to combat zoonotic infections with collaborative research and training programmes as starting points. Key strategies of the RCZI initiative include:

  • Establishing coordination mechanisms to strengthen multisectoral collaboration
  • Creating advocacy and communication to raise awareness on zoonoses and their impact amongst various stakeholders and sections of society
  • Fostering collaborative research networks, undertaking research and capacity building focused on the ‘One Health’ concept.

The RCZI website aims to be a repository of authentic and credible information. It is a dynamic medium that apart from hosting relevant and topical updates, provides links to the latest events, developments and decisions that are taken at different national and international fora. Wherever possile it includes Indian/ local guidelines but in the absence of consensus standards in zoonoses prevention and control in India, standards from international agencies and other countries have been used. These guidelines and best practices should accordingly be adopted to the local context. We would however be happy to receive feedback and links to locally relevant guidelines and will host them. Meanwhile, this website also provides visitors an opportunity to post comments, initiate discussion and seek responses.
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