Zoonotic Diseases – Let us understand them better

The deadly COVID-19 pandemic brought the world on its knees and put zoonotic diseases in the limelight. Though there have been many zoonotic diseases in the past such as Ebola, Zika, Nipah, and H1N1 Flu among others, these diseases remained localized with awareness limited a small geography. However, the global scale of COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for awareness about zoonotic diseases beyond borders.

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that are caused by harmful germs that spread between animals and human beings either through direct contact, or through food, water or the environment. These germs could be virus, bacteria, fungi or other parasites.

Given the close relationship between humans and animals, such infections pose major health problems and could lead to huge economic loss. The dependence of humans on animals has been prevalent since ancient times, in the form of domestication and farming, as modes of transportation, and as important food sources. When harmful pathogens are spread from animals to human beings it is called zoonoses and the other way round, it is called reverse zoonoses.

Animals play an important role as pets in our homes. Animals are known to carry harmful germs and spread them to humans from close, direct contact. These deadly germs cause different kinds of diseases in humans and animals, having a varied range of severity — from mild to serious, and in some cases, even death. The animals may seem healthy but they could be carriers of some infection which could be transmitted to humans causing serious illnesses. Some of the recent outbreaks are the Avian or the bird flu, Swine flu, Ebola, Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, to name just a few. Serious outbreaks like these are known to cause major social and economic disruptions because of the effects of these epidemics on the population, employment, production and trade. 

In order to prevent, control and protect ourselves from these harmful zoonoses, we need to understand that these germs spread from animals to humans in the following manner: 

  1. Through Direct Contact – The germs from the saliva, blood, urine, faeces or other body fluids of infected animals could enter the human body from their bites, scratches or by petting them.
  2. Indirect Contact – Any contact with the area the animals live, sleep or touch, or even from contact with their food and water bowls, etc. could be a source of contamination.  
  3. Vector-borne – Ticks, fleas and mosquitoes could carry deadly pathogens and their bites could transmit them to the human body.
  4. Food-borne or water-borne – Contaminated water or food could make humans sick.

Certain groups, such as children under 5 years, adults over 60, pregnant women or people with immuno-compromised conditions, are more prone to catching zoonotic infections.

The WHO has laid down certain guidelines for prevention and control of zoonotic diseases: 

  1. Maintain personal hygiene. Keeping hands clean by regular washing with soap and water, after petting or handling animals. Use of an alcohol-based sanitizer is also advisable, although it does not kill all kinds of germs. Using a handkerchief or a tissue, while sneezing or coughing is advisable as it will hamper the spread of germs.
  2. Avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, bugs or ticks. Use suitable clothing and insect-repellents especially when outdoors. Avoid scratches or bites from animals, especially those people working closely with animals like animal handlers on farms, vets, etc. 
  3. Follow strict safe food and water habits. Discard food suspected of any contamination. Wash all fruits, vegetables, meats and fish thoroughly in running water before consumption, to remove any traces of contamination. 
  4. Spreading large scale awareness regarding keeping water sources clean and free from contamination. Care should be taken that there is no accumulation of stagnant or dirty water which could breed mosquitoes or flies and it always helps to keep our immediate surroundings clean.
  5. Take proper care of pets and farm animals to avoid any infestation of ticks or fleas. Get them inoculated by following their vaccination schedule. Ensure proper grooming of pets and farm animals by keeping their coat, nails, and teeth healthy and their living areas clean and sanitised.
  6. Not all Zoonotic diseases are fatal. Diseases like rabies, H1N1 influenza, and even COVID-19 have vaccines which can prevent the diseases. Ensure that you and your family are properly vaccinated. Seeking guidance from a doctor to treat illnesses is always advisable.

With the scare caused by COVID pandemic, we have become aware of zoonotic diseases, but there is still a need for widespread understanding of these diseases. Using multimedia, social media and spreading general awareness through schools and social organisations, we could avoid any future outbreaks of deadly zoonotic pandemics.

Every year, July 6th is celebrated as World Zoonoses Day. SAVAVET, the companion-animal healthcare vertical of SAVA Healthcare Limited participates and conducts various camps and interaction programs to spread awareness about zoonotic diseases.

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