Chickenpox, Covid-19, avian flu… Towards more zoonoses at risk of new pandemics

“The interface between humans and animals has become quite unstable”alarmed a few days ago Dr. Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Disease emergence and amplification factors have increased,” according to him. We’ve just seen this with smallpox, but not only, he warned.

This monkeypox – “monkeypox” in English – caused by a virus transmitted to humans by infected animals – most often rodents – is the most recent example of the multiplication of these zoonoses.

These are infectious diseases that vertebrate animals can transmit to humans. Some even end up becoming specifically human, like Covid-19.

more trips

According to the World Organization for Animal Health, approximately 60% of emerging diseases are of zoonotic origin. Appearing thousands of years ago, since man intensified his interactions with animals by domesticating them, they have seen their frequency increase a lot in the last twenty or thirty years.

In question, “the intensification of travel, which allows it to spread more quickly and in an uncontrolled way”told AFP Marc Eloit, head of the Pathogen Discovery laboratory at the Institut Pasteur.

By occupying larger and larger areas of the globe, humans also contribute to disrupting the ecosystem and encouraging the transmission of viruses.

The intensification of industrial livestock raising thus increases the risk of spreading pathogens among animals. The wildlife trade also increases human exposure to the microbes they can carry.


Deforestation increases the risk of contact between wild animals, domestic animals and human populations.

“When we deforest, we reduce biodiversity; we lose animals that naturally regulate viruses, which allows them to spread more easily”Benjamin Roche, a biologist at the Research Institute for Development (IRD), a specialist in zoonoses, explained to AFP.

Climate change will also drive many animals to flee their ecosystems to more habitable lands, warned a study published in Nature in late April.

However, by mixing more, the species will transmit more of their viruses, which will promote the emergence of new diseases potentially transmissible to humans.

“We need improved surveillance in urban and wild animals so that we can identify when a pathogen has jumped from one species to another”said Gregory Albery, an environmental health expert at Georgetown University in the United States and co-author of the study.

“And if the recipient host is urban or close to humans, we should be particularly concerned.”

“Be ready”

The study outlines a future “network” of viruses jumping from species to species and growing in size as the planet warms. “Today we have easy and fast means of investigation that allow us to react quickly in the event of the emergence of new viruses”assured Marc Eloit, from the Pasteur Institute.

“We are also able to develop vaccines very quickly”as we saw with Covid-19.

“A whole line of potentially dangerous new diseases is likely to emerge. We will have to be ready.”warned Eric Fèvre, a professor specializing in veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool (UK) and the International Institute for Livestock Research (Kenya).

This means, according to him, “emphasizing the public health of populations” in the most remote environments and “To better study the ecology of these natural areas to understand how different species interact“.

Since the early 2000s, the “One Health” concept has been introduced: it promotes a multidisciplinary and global approach to health issues with close links between human and animal health and the environment.

France also launched in 2021 the international initiative “Prezode”, which aims to prevent the risks of zoonotic emergencies and pandemics, strengthening cooperation with the most affected regions of the world.

Monkeypox or “simian orthopoxvirus” is a rare disease whose pathogen can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa.

When the virus reaches humans, it is mostly from various wild animals, rodents or primates, for example. Human-to-human transmission is limited, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

Its symptoms are similar, in less severe, to those observed in the past in subjects affected by smallpox: fever, headaches, muscle and back pain, during the first five days. Then appear rashes (on the face, palms, soles of the feet), lesions, pustules and finally crusts.

It was first identified in humans in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in a 9-year-old boy who lived in an area from which smallpox had been eliminated since 1968.

Since 1970, human cases of monkeypox have been reported in 10 African countries.

In the spring of 2003, cases were also confirmed in the United States, marking the first appearance of this disease outside the African continent.

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