Changing the Public Health-Animal Welfare Connection Narrative and Expanding the One Health Approach

Mikalah Singer

COVID-19 changed lives. We lost loved ones and missed out on moments like weddings and graduations. Since March 2020, the term “once in a lifetime” public health event has been used more than once to describe what our most recent pandemic has been, but the reality is for many of us it has not been and will not be once in a lifetime.

Not only has COVID-19 been one of many global disease outbreaks that have massively impacted human society, but it is also joins the rank of historical zoonotic disease outbreaks. Zoonotic diseases are those that have originated in animals and spread to humans as a result of human-animal interactions and can be viral, parasitic, or bacterial. About three-fourths of emerging infectious diseases originate in non-human animals including those used in industrial agriculture and those consumed from wildlife trade. Right now, society does not largely recognize the link between the exploitation of animals and pandemics despite the fact that the connection between public health and using animals for human consumption is undeniable.

The One Health Approach, has done a great job opening up the discussion on how interconnected human health, animals, and environment are, but this approach falls short of considering animal welfare beyond veterinary health. Only considering animal health in this approach leaves solutions such as using antibiotics to protect farmed animals from disease as a solution. But this only causes further public health issues such as antibiotic resistance and allows big animal agriculture lobbyists to point to the current veterinary standards and procedures to deny the role they play in pandemics. In order to protect humans, animals, and the environment in the way that the One Health Approach aims, we need to expand the interconnected approach to include what is best for animals beyond veterinary medicine.

One way One Health can be expanded is by turning our focus more on a cause root of zoonotic disease: human exploitation of animals including through industrialized agriculture and wildlife trade. Both wildlife markets and factory farms involve crowding a large number of animals into cramped, stressful, conditions that can increase viral loads and therefore lead to more disease. These conditions provide the right biological setting for viruses to transform into pathogens that can easily infect humans.  Disease outbreaks as a result of human mistreatment of animals is not a new consideration as a result of COVID-19.

In fact, in the wake of Swine Flu in humans during the early 2000s, the American Public Health Association said there should be a ban on concentrated animal feeding operations in response to an increased recognition of the pandemic risk these operations pose. Additionally, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic likely originated in a live-animal market. If we want to protect society from these diseases, we need to target the source and prevent these diseases from starting.

Public health focused legislation can be the key to saving society from more pandemics and animals from mistreatment by humans. Both the United States House of Representatives and Senate have introduced bills that have animal welfare and public health goals. Bills like the Farm System Reform Act that would place a moratorium on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and would help CAFO owners transition to more humane farming practices. A moratorium on CAFOs would lower the number of animals being kept in confined conditions while also lowering the pandemic risk these operations pose. The Preventing Future Pandemics Act focuses on the pandemic risk from wildlife trade by establishing measures to address wildlife markets and the global health risk they pose. This legislation will prohibit trade of wildlife for the purpose of human consumption.

Both of the examples above have great potential public health benefit by targeting some of the root causes of pandemics. Unfortunately, the future of these bills does not look the brightest due to how animal welfare forward they are. Addressing the public health issues connected with animal welfare issues such as living and transportation conditions shows the only solution to protect public health is to eliminate those conditions. Both the Preventing Future Pandemics Act and Farm System Reform Act follows this line of thinking. But if we want legislation preventing pandemics and protecting animals to move forward, we need to change the narrative and that starts with having more discussions about the public health and animal welfare connection and expanding on the traction that One Health Approach has already gathered.


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