Why The Environment Makes Us Sick

Added to the list of human accomplishments: DIY pandemics.

Next time someone suggests that human beings are masters of their ecological niches, tell them this: last year, two million people worldwide were killed by wild and domestic animal diseases. Nearly two-thirds of all emerging diseases originate in animals. Mention the victims of the 1999 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia which killed 100 people. Mention AIDS. Mention malaria. Mention the Justinian Plague and the Black Death. Mention SARS, Lyme disease and Ebola.

Tell them we’re only as healthy as our environment – and that this isn’t a figure of speech.

It’s becoming clear that the medical well-being of our species is deeply dependent on that of the creatures around us, but the United States Agency for International Development wants to understand exactly how that relationships works. It has a project called PREDICT, a coalition of experts searching the globe for hotspots for emerging infectious disease in order to understand the underlying mechanisms. The aim? Raising awareness of the dangers of disrupting ecosystems and eroding biodiversity, trying to develop an “early warning system” for the outbreak of pandemics, and creating a powerful argument for sustainable ecology.

“It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth. “It’s learning how to do things sustainably. If you can get a handle on what it is that drives the emergence of a disease, then you can learn to modify environments sustainably.”

Further reading: The Ecology Of Disease – Jim Robbins, New York Times (quoted above).

Image: James Cridland

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.