More than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases are zoonotic – transmitted from animals to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 200 known types of zoonoses ranging from bird flu to rabies. We know that zoonotic diseases also account for more than 70% of new, emerging and re-emerging diseases – such as the novel coronavirus Sars-COV-2.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight the devastating global consequences that can occur when zoonotic diseases spill over to humans. Yet, more than a year since Covid-19 journalism began to dominate the news cycle, zoonotic diseases continue to be a source of debate, conflict and misinformation worldwide, contributing to limited public awareness of the risks they pose. For instance, how is the global wildlife trade linked to zoonotic disease outbreaks? In what ways do deforestation and environmental disruption heighten the risk of zoonotic pandemics?
Clear and accurate reporting on zoonotic diseases may well help keep the next global public health crisis at bay. In response to this need, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) has joined a global consortium led by Tufts University to embark on a five-year project that seeks to identify, anticipate and mitigate threats posed by the “spillover” of dangerous pathogens from animals to humans. Launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the “Strategies to Prevent Spillover,” project, known as STOP Spillover, will engage global experts on emerging infectious diseases and health information systems and seek to improve communication with the public about these issues.
STOP Spillover will focus on several zoonotic viruses including Ebola, Lassa, Marburg, Nipah, animal-origin coronaviruses (including SARS, MERS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2), and animal-origin influenza viruses. The viruses were prioritized based on these factors:
- repeated, sporadic outbreaks with occasional epidemics or pandemics
- relatively low immunity and relatively high case fatality rates in human populations
- the lack of specific and widely available biomedical countermeasures such as medicines and vaccines, and
- the inability of countries to reliably reduce spillover, amplification and spread of these viruses.
The STOP Spillover project will be active in up to 10 target countries, including Liberia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam.
As a member of the consortium, EJN is engaging with local communities to understand their knowledge, needs and access to information about zoonotic diseases. We will strengthen local media capacities in these target countries, empowering journalists to report more effectively on zoonotic diseases. We’ll provide grants and mentorship to local journalists to support solutions journalism that helps prevent spillover and reduce the spread of zoonotic pathogens.
EJN will also seek to train journalists to find and use data and the latest scientific research in their reporting, explore ways to better explain the drivers of zoonotic spillover and elevate the voices of those most at risk. To that end, EJN has produced an online course and hosted a webinar for journalists looking to better understand the science behind zoonotic diseases, find available data on the subject and build their reporting skills.
As a result of this project, collaboration between the media, scientists, health experts and local communities will be strengthened, generating a deeper understanding of zoonotic spillover in all priority countries. As the threat of spillover continues to intensify, the media will play a crucial role in building greater local awareness so that communities most at risk can better identify, anticipate, and mitigate future outbreaks before they grow unchecked into another public health crisis.
Visit the STOP Spillover website for more information and to subscribe for project updates.
Banner image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash.