Concern over the growing number of animal disease crises. Outbreaks of swine flu, Ebola, SARS. Topics that headline the news, yet fade away to the background quickly when the most immediate threat subsides.
The World Health Organisation and the World Bank are alarmed because a pandemic could claim more victims than any war has ever done.
A staggering 75% of all bacteria or viruses that make people ill are of animal origin, these are so-called zoonoses.
Animals become sick because of the way they are kept by humans. And humans become sick because of the way animals are kept.
Because of the unnatural manner in which massive numbers of animals are kept ad because farmers want the animals to grow quickly, the livestock and aquaculture sectors liberally and arbitrarily sprinkle antibiotics before the animals are even ill. The result is that the animals’ immune systems are compromised and bacteria become desensitised to all antibiotics. Nearly all the chicken meat and nearly half of the veal in the Netherlands is infected with the multi-resistant ESBL bacteria. And over half of the cultivated fish and seafood, such as tiger prawns and tilapia from Southeast Asia, is infected with multi-resistant bacteria.
Animal diseases are of all times, but with our worldwide practices of keeping some 70 billion animals for consumption – 70 billion every year – we have created a ticking time bomb for pandemics of immeasurable scale. Viruses and bacteria can transmit to the human who looks after, transports, slaughters or eats the animal.
Professor Hans Zaaijer is Head of Department Blood-borne Infections at Sanquin Research, Amsterdam, since 2008. He is a medical doctor and medical microbiologist at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) in Amsterdam and professor of Blood-Transmitted Infections at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Amsterdam (UvA).