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More than ever before we are facing the threat of new diseases that seemingly erupt out of nowhere. More than 60 percent of all new emerging infectious diseases derive from animal hosts including: Ebola, SARS, HIV/AIDS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Avian influenza. These man-made epidemic diseases have all emerged as a result from the destruction of the rainforests, loss of wildlife habitats, and climate change.
When you read this short paragraph from the non-profit organization EcoHealth Alliance, you might wonder: how could an epidemic possibly be “man-made?”
After all—aren’t pandemics, by definition, simply global, transnational outbreaks of epidemic diseases? Don’t they afflict us randomly and independently? Aren’t people the victims rather than the perpetrators?
No, not really—it’s much more complex than that.
Here’s how it often works, at least in the majority of cases: the human population expands and pushes into areas, especially in the Earth’s tropical zones, where they’ve never lived before. They have contact with animals in those areas that carry previously unknown viruses, and those viruses cross over to human beings. Ever hear, for example, of “bush meat?” In jungles, bush meat refers to the wild animals that people hunt and kill for food. When they handle, kill or eat those animals, they can contract viral infections that then “spill over” into the human population.
After all, that’s how HIV/AIDS got started. With its zoonotic origin in chimpanzees, scientists have now shown that HIV began as far back as 1910, when European colonialism led to the forced growth and development of large cities in a previously rural, tribal and decentralized Africa. All of that brutal colonialism and increased urban centralization resulted in social changes that drove African men into the cities in large numbers, breaking up nuclear families and traditional tribal groups, which resulted in:
…a higher degree of sexual promiscuity, the spread of prostitution, and the accompanying high frequency of genital ulcer diseases (such as syphilis) in nascent colonial cities. – PloS One scientific journal, April 2010.
Without colonialism, the likelihood of the global spread of HIV/AIDS would have been minimal. Instead, that deadly disease has now killed more than 40 million people, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the worst pandemics in modern history, the HIV virus has caused untold suffering all over the world. Here’s the even scarier part: more of those same kinds of zoonotic viral pandemics, as yet undiscovered and unknown, are waiting for us in their animal hosts.
As the Earth’s climate changes and continues to heat up, causing the world’s tropical zones to expand into previously temperate areas; as burgeoning populations in those jungles and rain forests and other tropical environments extend their villages and cities and farmlands into previously undisturbed ecosystems; and as continued rural and agrarian poverty forces people to eat what they can catch or hunt in those places, we will, inevitably, create more animal-to-human cross-species transmission. That’s why you’re hearing more and more about newly-emerging and previously unknown diseases.
Some scientists have already sounded the alarm. Epidemiologists understand the risks, and now monitor them with quick-reaction global web networks designed to serve as an early-warning system for new viral outbreaks. Those who study wild animal populations have warned us, too. Even Hollywood has cashed in on the threat, with a whole host of recent movies and videogames about rapidly-spreading germs and weaponized viruses that wipe out most of humanity, leaving only Bruce Willis to save the rest of us.
Seriously, though, this is serious. Just imagine a deadly disease like Ebola or the Marburg virus spreading out of control around the world, with no treatment or cure in sight, and you’ll understand the risks. The unchecked spread of a deadly zoonotic virus could decimate the world’s population, in a much worse way than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic did. We need great global vigilance, foresight and unity to address these potential crises—not after they occur, but before they happen. So far, we’ve been relatively fortunate that a disease like HIV/AIDS or bird flu hasn’t massively spread to almost everyone—but our luck may not hold forever.
The Baha’i teachings include several warnings about humanity’s future, and personally I’ve begun to wonder if those cautionary passages might obliquely refer to such a terrible potential pandemic:
The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly. Its perversity will long continue. And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake. Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 118-119.
Now since you are the servants of the world of humanity you must strive with your heart and soul, in order that the human world may be delivered from the darkness of material manhood and natural prejudices and attain to the light of the Divine World. Praise be to God, ye are informed of all the laws, commandments and principles. Today the world of humanity will not find peace and tranquility except through these teachings and this darkness will not, otherwise, be dispelled, these chronic diseases be cured. Nay, these would, otherwise, be aggravated from day to day. – Abdu’l-Baha, Letter to Martha Root.
The Baha’i teachings say that the unification of humanity will provide the means for the cure of the world’s chronic diseases—both physical and spiritual. In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore how that unification could begin to prevent the zoonotic and even synthetic pandemics that threaten all of us.
Next: The Next Weapon of Mass Destruction: Select Agents