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The bubonic plague and brain-eating amoebas: should we fear more pandemics?

As we continue to navigate the coronavirus crisis, news of more infectious diseases is emerging – an expert weighs in on exactly what this means

This week, as we continue to navigate life amid the coronavirus crisis, three headlines have hit the TL: a case of the bubonic plague has been identified in Inner Mongolia, a rare brain-eating amoeba has turned up in Florida, and China has confirmed a new case of dengue fever.

With everyone on high alert as lockdowns across the world begin to lift, it’s easy to get sucked into the scaremongering of these sensationalist headlines. Though it’s obviously important to take infectious diseases seriously, it’s also worth reading past the headlines to find out how worried you should actually be.

The bubonic plague, for example, was once the world’s most feared disease, but is now easily treated by antibiotics. In fact, there have been a handful of large outbreaks since it took the lives of 50 million people in the 14th century, and the US has an average of seven plague cases per year. The World Health Organisation has said the new Inner Mongolia case is being “well managed” and is not considered high risk.

As for Florida’s brain-eating amoeba – commonly found in warm freshwater, and usually fatal – it seems to be easy to avoid by not swimming in open bodies of water, as the amoeba can’t be passed from person to person.

Though both of these cases appear to be controllable, novel infectious diseases are undeniably a risk, and, according to Silviu Petrovan, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, do appear to be emerging more frequently over the past decades. However, he also suggests that we are simply more aware of them right now, particularly in the media, due to COVID-19.

“The current crisis shows that novel viral diseases can have extremely high impacts for humans,” Petrovan tells Dazed, “and therefore prevention and risk-based responses and policy changes are extraordinarily important.” Petrovan believes we should be worried about pandemics (to an extent), because that fear will encourage world leaders to “put in place better policies to reduce risks”.

“Continuing as before, with increasing trade and consumption of wildlife, poor hygiene for captive animals and trading areas, long-distance movements of animals, and human activities into natural habitats, will likely lead to further problems,” he says.

“We should be worried if that means we put in better policies to reduce risks” – Silviu Petrovan, researcher

Last month, Petrovan co-authored a study looking at how to prevent future zoonotic epidemics – those that transmit from animals to humans – post-coronavirus (an illness which is believed to have originated in bats). Researchers identified 161 potential options for reducing risks, rejecting calls to ban wet markets or consumption of wild animals, which they said would “alienate and increase hardship for local communities across the world”. Among the extensive preventative options are: preventing or controlling the hunting, selling, and consumption of wild or high-risk species; ensuring animal rearing environments are sanitary; and building awareness about the disease transmission risks of specific wildlife.

“There is no silver bullet (againt pandemics),” Petrovan tells Dazed, “but for those of zoonotic origin, there are numerous options that should be considered, prioritised, and implemented.” As well as those above, Petrovan suggests replacing “high-risk animal products with synthetic or plant-based alternatives” – something climate activists have been urging people to do for years.

“Climate change is an enormous challenge and will impact our lives in a multitude of ways,” says Petrovan. “Some species, including pathogen carriers like mosquitoes (who spread dengue fever), will expand their ranges and move into new areas, but climate change and extreme weather also acts as a major stressor for ecosystems, which creates opportunities for disturbance and infection.”

“Reducing the worst predictions for climate change is crucial for many reasons,” he adds, “but managing the spread of diseases is an important element.”

Although there’s no coronavirus vaccine as of yet, when it comes to political and social responses to pandemics, Petrovan is hopeful that COVID-19 has taught us a lot about how to prepare for a future crisis. “We’ve learned an enormous amount in terms of reducing risks and the value of early intervention,” he explains.

The UK in particular should be learning from its coronavirus failings, having refused to lockdown earlier despite getting an early insight into how the disease might spread from Italy’s experience. Professor Neil Ferguson – whose advice convinced the government to impose stay-at-home orders in March – recently admitted that had the country gone into lockdown just one week earlier, the death rate would have been halved.

“Reducing the worst predictions for climate change is crucial for many reasons, but managing the spread of diseases is an important element” – Silviu Petrovan, researcher

However, Petrovan asserts that efforts should focus on preventing pandemics, as opposed to reacting to them, if the world is to avoid another coronavirus-style lockdown. “It is important to act before the disease spreads rather than treating a pandemic,” he explains. “Each disease is different, but there are common elements around surveillance and rapid responses that are vital. We’re probably much better prepared for some diseases than others.”

One worrying element, says Petrovan, is that existing pathogens may become resistant to available treatments (see: super-gonorrhoea). “As a global society, we are currently overusing antimicrobials in ways that are not sustainable and that create significant risks.”

Clearly, it’s important to be concerned about future pandemics, but pandering to rousing headlines isn’t the answer. Instead, it’s up to world leaders to implement policies that will protect animals, educate hunters, and, in turn, prevent epidemics. There’s also no point getting riled up about a new pandemic when you’re still trying to survive the current one.

Get the latest information about coronavirus via the World Health Organisation here.