A child in Tsim Sha Tsui on January 24 is seen wearing a mask as protection against the coronavirus outbreak that originated Wuhan. Photo: Edmond So
by Dirk U. Pfeiffer
by Dirk U. Pfeiffer

Wild animal link to coronavirus outbreak should revolutionise public health strategies

  • Why do some people prefer to eat meat from freshly slaughtered animals? How can people be convinced to change their behaviour?
  • A ‘one health’ approach, involving not just scientists but experts from disciplines such as economics and anthropology, could help
Cultural differences in risk perception play an important role when it comes to the emergence of new infectious diseases associated with the animal-human interface. An example is the meat consumption behaviours in different parts of the world; in the context of the emergence of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, it is the consumption of meat derived from wild animals.
There is a video circulating on the internet showing a Chinese woman eating a cooked bat, apparently with some delight. This sight reminded me of the fact that while globalisation has brought us closer together, there is enormous variation in cultural value systems. I strongly believe that these differences are one of many reasons this planet is such a great place to live on.

However, the more connected we are via transport and trade networks and the more concentrated we are in megacities, the easier it becomes for infectious diseases to spread rapidly locally, regionally and globally. This means that we need to be much more effective at detecting outbreaks early and then be able to mount a proportionate response.

But as important, or perhaps even more important, is a need to reduce the risk of such infectious disease emergence, because the enormous rate of human mobility severely compromises the likelihood of a timely emergency response.

A key factor that we need to understand is the role of human behaviour in the emergence of infectious disease risk and in the spread of infection. With that information, policies should then be developed that result in lasting behavioural change, where that is considered socio-economically and culturally appropriate.

Wet markets are of particular significance in this context, and evidence from severe acute respiratory syndrome, avian flu (H5N1 and H7N9) and now 2019-nCoV is a clear indication that urgent action is required. But it is essential to realise that such scientific investigations require an interdisciplinary approach that involves medical and veterinary experts and virologists, but possibly most importantly social scientists, including economists and cultural anthropologists.
This particular research approach is often referred to as “one health”. The World Health Organisation, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Organisation for Animal Health have reflected the international consensus on the need for the adoption of the “one health” approach in the Tripartite Guide for Addressing Zoonotic Diseases in Countries.

Unfortunately, only a few governments around the world have adopted and institutionalised a true “one health” approach for their zoonotic disease prevention, detection and response governance.

A woman kills a live chicken at a wet market in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on January 5. Photo: Simon Song
For example, as a result of my cultural background, it is difficult or even impossible for me to understand why people prefer to eat meat from freshly slaughtered animals or believe that there are health benefits associated with some exotic animal meats. I know that because of my personal biases, I am not in a position to judge right from wrong and I firmly believe we need to understand the reasons for these behaviours.

We need to take that knowledge into account when we consider the potential need for risk mitigation or any ethical or legal issues in terms of the animal species that is being consumed. An understanding of the rationale for these behaviours must inform the development of a choice architecture, involving a mix of appropriate regulations and nudges, that will result in effective behaviour change.

Why wild animals are a key ingredient in China’s coronavirus outbreak

Currently, the focus is often on government regulation, which often cannot be effectively and sustainably enforced combined with very traditional communication tools, such as posters that aim to visualise the risk and desirable behaviour. A widespread adoption of a “one health” approach, involving medical, veterinary and social science, as well as other relevant scientific disciplines, would significantly improve our chances of dealing much more effectively with future zoonotic disease threats.

Scientists, who usually are used to only working within their own disciplinary silos, will need to learn to respect the importance of knowledge generated by the other disciplines, and how to integrate that knowledge such that it can result in the development of more effective disease prevention and control policies.

Professor Dirk U. Pfeiffer is Chow Tak Fung Chair Professor of One Health at City University of Hong Kong. He is also a member of a number of worldwide advisory committees tackling zoonotic diseases

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