The new coronavirus outbreak, which has spread from China to at least 16 other countries, has affected more than 20,000 people and left more than 400 dead, according to data on Tuesday.
This virus, which is believed to come from an animal in a market in Wuhan City, highlights our risk of contracting wildlife-borne diseases.
This is likely to be a major problem in the future, as climate change and globalization alter the way animals and humans interact.RELATED
How can animals make people sick?
In the last 50 years, a series of infectious diseases has spread rapidly after the jump of animals to humans.
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The HIV / AIDS crisis of the 1980s originated in the apes. The 2004-07 bird flu pandemic came from some birds and the pigs gave us the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
More recently, it was discovered that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) came from bats, animals that also gave us Ebola.
Humans have always contracted animal diseases. In fact, that is the case in most new infectious diseases.
But climate change is accelerating this process, at the same time as the increase in the number of inhabitants in cities and international travels allow these diseases to spread more rapidly.
As of Friday, China had already confirmed almost 12,000 cases of people infected with the coronavirus.
How can diseases jump from one species to another?
Most animals carry a variety of pathogens: bacteria and viruses that can cause disease.
The evolutionary survival of the pathogen depends on the infection of new hosts, and jumping to other species is a way of doing it.
The new host’s immune systems try to kill the pathogens, which means that the two are locked in an eternal evolutionary game of trying to find new ways to defeat each other.
For example, approximately 10% of infected people died during the SARS epidemic in 2003, compared with less than 0.1% of a “typical” influenza epidemic.
People and animals like monkeys live in some places in India.
Climate change is altering and eliminating animal habitats, transforming the way they live and altering who eats whom.
The way humans live has also changed: 55% of the world’s population now inhabits cities, compared to 35% 50 years ago.
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And these larger cities offer new homes for wildlife: rats, mice, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, birds, jackals, monkeys, which can live in green spaces like parks and gardens, away from the waste that humans leave behind.
Some species tend to be more successful in cities than in nature due to the abundant supply of food, which makes urban spaces a melting pot of evolving diseases.
Who is at greatest risk?
New diseases in a new host are usually more dangerous, so any emerging infection is worrisome.
Some groups are more vulnerable to contracting these diseases than others.
The poorest inhabitants of the cities are more likely to work in cleaning and sanitation, which increases their chances of finding sources and carriers of diseases.
They may also have weaker immune systems due to poor nutrition and exposure to poor air or unhealthy conditions. And if they get sick, they may not be able to pay for medical care.
New infections can also spread rapidly in large cities, as people are so tight that they breathe the same air and touch the same surfaces.
In some cultures, people also use urban wildlife to feed themselves: they eat animals captured within the city or raised in the surroundings.
How do diseases change our behavior?
As of Tuesday, WHO has confirmed 20,630 cases of those affected by the new coronavirus and 426 dead.
The possible economic consequences of the outbreak are clear.
Travel restrictions have been imposed, but even without these measures, people are afraid to interact due to the risk of contracting the virus, so they change their behavior.
It becomes more difficult to cross borders, temporary migrant workers cannot relocate and supply chains are interrupted.
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This is typical of an outbreak of this nature. In 2003, the SARS epidemic cost the global economy an estimated US $ 40,000 million in six months.
This was due in part to the cost of treating patients, but also to the decline in economic activity and movement of people.
What can we do?
Societies and governments tend to treat each new infectious disease as an independent crisis, rather than recognizing that they are a symptom of how the world is changing.
The more we change the environment, the more likely we are to alter ecosystems and create opportunities for diseases to arise.
Only about 10% of the world’s pathogens have been documented, so more resources are needed to identify the rest and carrier animals.
For example, how many rats are in a large capital and what diseases do they transmit?
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Many city dwellers value urban wildlife, but we must also recognize that some animals carry potential damage.
It makes sense to keep track of what animals are coming to the cities and if people are killing or eating wildlife or taking it to the surrounding markets.
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Improving sanitation, waste disposal and pest control are ways to help stop the appearance and spread of these outbreaks.
More generally, it is about changing the way our environments are managed and the way people interact with them.
Pandemics are part of our future
Recognizing that new diseases are emerging and that they are spreading in this way puts us in a stronger position to fight the new pandemics, which are an inevitable part of our future.
Experts recommend taking hygiene measures such as disinfecting your hands to prevent the virus.
A century ago, the Spanish influenza pandemic infected approximately 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million worldwide.
Scientific progress and large investments in global health mean that such a disease would be better managed in these times or in the future.
However, the risk remains real and potentially catastrophic: if something similar happens again, it would change life in the world.
In the mid-twentieth century, some in the West claimed that infectious diseases were conquerable.
But as urbanization and inequality grow and climate change further disrupts our ecosystems, we must recognize emerging diseases as a growing risk.
This analysis was commissioned by BBC News from Tim Benton, an expert who worked for an external organization.
Benton is the research director of the Emerging Risk team at Chatham House, where he directs the Energy, Environment and Resources program.
Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, describes itself as an independent institute that helps build a sustainable, prosperous and fair world.