Does anyone remember the book THE COMING PLAGUE ? First published in 1994 in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, THE COMING PLAGUE: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance was a New York Times bestseller in 1994-5. Laurie Garrett researched and wrote THE COMING PLAGUE for ten years, starting in the mid-1980s when the very premise of the effort was highly controversial. What seemed an acutely controversial premise in 1994 is mainstream thought in the second decade of the 21st Century.1.
HIV, SARS, Ebola, Zika, drug resistant tuberculosis, virulent influenza are a few bugs we are familiar with, but did you know that there has been more than 12 new human diseases that have appeared over the past 25 years. A new tick borne disease showed up in Kansas in 2014, and a new type of Leprosy dismembered a man in Arizona in 2002. Also a new hemorrhagic fever jumped from rodents in California in 1999 killing 3 women, these are just a few to mention. Over the past century, the number of new infectious diseases cropping up each year has nearly quadrupled. The number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled.
A lot of these viruses come from the rainforest. Rainforests are biodiversity and evolutionary meccas where nature gets to experiment, adapt, and create everything from animals, insects, and yes viruses. Kevin Olival, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist with the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance which is part of a $200 million project called PREDICT, sponsored by the U.S. government and led by University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine states the goal of PREDICT is to find hidden viruses around the world and the rainforest is one of the hotbeds and most worrisome. They want to find the next pandemic before it finds us, before a jump to humans.
Teams with PREDICT have been sampling in rain forests around the world for seven years and found nearly 1,000 new viruses in more than 20 countries, across three continents. These viruses have been around for thousands of years, they are just new to us and have been in the ecosystem all along coexisting unharmingly with the animals there.2
One of the factors that may contribute to the next viral jump is the cutting of rainforests and human encroachment into these biodiverse areas. For example when animals are displaced by building and agriculture they have nowhere to go except closer and closer to where people live making contact more likely.
Thousands of acres of rainforest have been cut and turned into agricultural land growing soybeans in Brazil or in the Southeast Asia palm oil plantations. Palm oil for instance is used in most food we consume everyday and has become more popular replacing less healthy transfats and oils. In case you weren’t aware, palm oil is a type of vegetable oil derived from palm fruit grown on palm trees, and it’s one of the most unsustainable industries in the world. It causes mass deforestation around the world (specifically Africa, Asia, and America, but mostly Indonesia and Malaysia). Palm oil growth is destructive to the environment and the habitats of many now-endangered species, as well as the homes of native communities. Only about 15% of the worlds rainforests are still intact. Foods and consumables that most likely contain palm oil include; bread, margarine, crunchy snacks, vegan cheese, soap, ice cream, pizza bases, noodles, shampoo, and chocolate to name a few. The clearing of these rainforests is a major contributor to global warming, given how much carbon dioxide (CO2) trees store when left alone. Once these forests are cut , tons of CO2 is released further exacerbating the heating of the planet. Rainforests also help maintain water resources by absorbing rainfall and then releasing it into streams and rivers, thus minimizing flooding and soil depletions.3
Are you starting to see the bigger picture here, how everything is interrelated, environment , disease, health, and sustainability. We see our patients in our clinics and hospitals, diagnose their diseases and prescribe medications only to keep their symptoms controlled. Yet obesity, diabetes and hypertension continue to become more and more prevalent and are increasing at alarming rates. How our health is affected with poor diet and inactivity are just bigger reflections of how we treat our environment. We are cutting down the rainforests that keep our earth healthy to produce oil and food that we eat yet don’t need, which in turn pollutes our body causing preventable disease. We are also polluting our air and water and wondering why respiratory disease, water-borne illnesses and cancer are increasing exponentially.
Here is that old cliché again, but it is so true, we have to start acting locally and think globally. Make conscious decisions of what you buy and eat. Do you know where your food is grown? Where does your water come from? What about all those plastic bags and containers you have, where does it wind up ?
You have more power than you think, your dollar and vote speak a global language which big corporations and politicians understand. Become active in community planning, making your community healthier will decrease preventable disease. If you have not heard about BLUE ZONES, it is a great program that transforms unhealthy communities into vibrant healthy ones.
The next time you are having a delicious muffin, take a moment and think about the palm oil in it, and rainforest destruction that occurred so the palm tree could be planted, and if you happen to be reading the newspaper, watching TV, or surfing the web, and hear about a rare virus outbreak threatening to become a pandemic, just remember how viruses jump.