26 October 2021

People and the planet will only recover with stronger animal health systems

Ahead of the G20 Summit, Klara Saville, Head of Global Animal Health, Animal Welfare, Community Development and Research at Brooke UK, and Syed Naeem Abbas, Advocacy Manager at Brooke Pakistan discuss the need for investment in animal health. 

A horse stands outside a family home in Nepal. Credit Freya Dowson/Brooke

The G20 leaders will gather at a critical moment for global health and climate change. We need to see bold and transformative action from the G20 to protect the health of people and planet. But animals are inextricably linked to human and environmental health, so weak animal health systems are a serious risk to all of us.

Some may consider animal health a luxury, but 1.3 billion depend on livestock for their livelihoods. 75% of new human infections, such as COVID-19, arise from animals. So it is time to think again.

We are only as strong as the weakest health system. There will be no public health security without a significant investment in animal health systems. Healthier animals are more productive and generate lower emissions, so animal health should be integral to reducing climate change.

The G20 support the One Health approach, which recognises the interconnection between people, animals and the environment. One Health is a crucial opportunity to prevent, rather than respond to, global health and environmental risks. The World Bank calculated in 2012 that success in preventing the onset of pandemics would generate an annual rate of return of 86% per year. But we need to bring together experts from each of these sectors, and adequately fund putting One Health into practice.

Healthy animals protect people

Animal health’s critical link to human health has never been more apparent: the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have come from an animal. COVID-19 joins a long list of zoonotic diseases with fatal consequences, including rabies, Ebola, SARS and avian influenza. People are infected with diseases from animals every day. A recent study found that just 13 of the more than 200 zoonotic diseases transmitted from wild and domesticated animals to people each year caused 2.4 billion cases of human illnesses and 2.2 million human deaths, most in the world’s poorer countries.

For example, 1.3 million people and over 5,000 animals work in close contact in brick kilns in South Asia. These animals work in 50-degree heat in areas with low access to proper feed and water. They can contract diseases from frequent interactions with wild and domestic animals, which can easily spread to people, who also work in these harsh conditions. Just this year, there was a deadly Glanders disease outbreak in Nepal.

Many zoonotic diseases are preventable, but we need investment in the vets, medicines and animal disease surveillance to improve the currently weak infrastructure worldwide. A clear example of this is rabies. We have the vaccines, tools and technologies to prevent people from contracting dog-mediated rabies, but one person dies every nine minutes - with 95% of deaths occurring in Asia and Africa (WHO). If we invested in widely vaccinating dogs against rabies, then dogs and humans would not suffer an agonising death.  

Veterinary medicines and vaccines play a vital role in keeping animals healthy, as well as humans. But there is a massive gap. There is a globally recognised list of essential medicines for humans, but nothing for animals. Brooke and the World Veterinary Association are developing a list for farmed and working animals to support governments and suppliers to meet animals’ needs.

Animal health also needs to be considered in efforts to reduce global heating. Improving animal health and welfare benefits the environment by reducing preventable animal deaths. Experts estimate that around 20% of production losses worldwide can be attributed to animal diseases. For example African swine fever has become a major crisis spreading relentlessly across more than 50 countries so far. These animal deaths, as well as causing animal suffering and a loss of income for farmers, represent a waste of resources that contributes to climate change.

The G20 must embrace this critical moment for global health

At the Action for Animal Health coalition’s session at the Civil Society 20 Summit, Keith Sumption, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, made the case that there will be no health security without One Health, and that the G20 need to make One Health a priority for future financing. That funding has to include animal health.

A pandemic of monumental proportions has rocked our world and it is a case of when, not if, the next pandemic hits. We are also standing on the precipice of devastating climate change. As global leaders prepare for the G20 summit, will they meet the moment?