The Health of the Planet is Our Health: The Impact of Biodiversity and Human Activities on the Emergence of Zoonotic Diseases

Table of contents

Biodiversity is disappearing at a staggering rate, causing the extinction of thousands of species and having catastrophic consequences for the environment and human health. From habitat loss to climate change, biodiversity loss has been increasing, and its effects have been felt around the world. In recent years, the emergence of new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 has highlighted the relationship between biodiversity loss and disease emergence. In this article, I will explore the causes and effects of biodiversity loss and the relationship between emerging diseases and biodiversity loss, and discuss potential solutions to curb this crisis. Understanding the importance and urgency of the problem will allow us to take collective action and make a difference for the future of the planet and all its inhabitants.

paciente infectado con covid-19 en cama en sala de cuarentena con un signo de alerta de cuarentena y de interrupción en el hospital con expertos en control de enfermedades tratan de hacer el tratamiento de la enfermedad. Shutterstock.

Biodiversity loss and its causes

Human-induced activities such as deforestation, agriculture and hunting have contributed significantly to biodiversity loss. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the global species extinction rate is “tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years, and it is accelerating.” This trend is mainly due to changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

Overexploitation of resources such as timber, fish and other wildlife, driven by increasing human demand, has also led to widespread degradation of ecosystems. In addition, conversion of natural habitats for agriculture and urbanization has caused habitat loss and fragmentation, reducing the space available for wildlife and potentially increasing the potential for contact with humans and domestic animals, leading to the spread of zoonotic diseases.

The next time you go for a walk, I invite you to stop for a moment and observe the nature around you. Think of all that is at stake. Everything is connected, and our actions have a direct impact on the world around us. It is therefore essential that we take action to preserve our biodiversity before it is too late. Now, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

Emerging infectious diseases and biodiversity loss

The emergence of new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 has brought the relationship between biodiversity loss and disease emergence to the forefront. In recent years, most emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) have been zoonotic, meaning that they have originated in animals and have passed to humans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), zoonotic diseases account for about 60% of all infectious diseases and almost 75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans. This data highlights the importance of understanding the relationship between biodiversity loss and disease emergence.

There are several ways in which biodiversity loss can lead to the emergence of new diseases. One of the main ones is through habitat destruction and fragmentation. When natural habitats are destroyed, animals are forced to adapt by changing their migratory patterns, feeding habits and interactions with other species. This can lead to increased contact and exposure to other animal and human populations, increasing the risk of disease transmission. In addition, as habitats become more fragmented, the diversity and abundance of animal species decreases, resulting in less competition for resources and an increase in the prevalence of certain species that could carry infectious diseases.

The case studies show that biodiversity loss has contributed to the emergence of several IEEs in recent years. For example, the outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia in 1998 was linked to the destruction of rainforests and the increase in fruit bat populations in agricultural areas. Similarly, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014 was linked to deforestation and bushmeat hunting in the affected areas. These examples illustrate the potential consequences of biodiversity loss for human health and the need for immediate action to prevent further damage to the planet’s ecosystems.

And yes, I know it sounds like a science fiction movie, but I assure you it’s not.

Niño con microcefalia es atendido en una entidad que atiende a afectados por el síndrome congénito del zika en la ciudad de Salvador (Brasil). 27 de abril de 2017. Shutterstock.

Drivers of biodiversity loss and mitigation strategies

The causes of biodiversity loss are numerous and complex. Among the main ones are habitat destruction and fragmentation, climate change, pollution, overfishing and poaching. The impacts of biodiversity loss are far-reaching and cover a range of areas, from loss of biodiversity hotspots to increased disease proliferation and food insecurity.

Efforts are being made to mitigate the causes of biodiversity loss at the local, national and international levels. For example, the United Nations has set ambitious targets for preserving biodiversity, including the goal of protecting 30 percent of the planet’s land and sea by 2030. There is also a growing awareness of the impact of individual actions on the environment, which has led to the rise of green living choices such as plant-based diets, sustainable travel and renewable energy. Other initiatives include conservation and restoration efforts, sustainable agriculture, and measures to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

But to achieve meaningful change, collective action by individuals, governments and corporations is needed. We must work together to address the root causes of biodiversity loss and preserve the planet’s ecosystems for present and future generations. As individuals, we can take steps to reduce our ecological footprint, as well as support companies that prioritize sustainability. As governments and corporations, we can invest in green infrastructure and technologies, implement and enforce sustainable policies, and collaborate to ensure a livable planet for all. Collectively, we can help mitigate biodiversity loss and ensure a brighter future for all species on Earth.

And remember, it’s not just about saving polar bears or bees (which are also important). It is about ensuring our own survival. Because, at the end of the day, we are as dependent on the biodiversity of this planet as any other species.

The link between biodiversity loss and infectious diseases

The destruction of natural habitats, resulting from deforestation and habitat annihilation, has been linked to the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases. The trend of species loss that is occurring globally, as a result of habitat fragmentation, climate change and exploitation, has direct implications for zoonotic disease risks. Changes in ecosystems drastically influence the diversity, abundance and behavior of the species that inhabit them. This alters the transmission cycles of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, consequently increasing the risk of transfer to humans. Current evidence, as suggested by sources, shows that deforestation accounts for a quarter of the occurrence of infectious diseases.

But that’s not all, according to some sources; climate change amplifies the risk and virulence of infectious diseases. Increasingly unpredictable weather forces animals to migrate to new areas, where they encounter new pathogens or infected animals, leading to exposure and infection of new hosts that were previously never at risk. Waterborne diseases, such as cholera and dengue fever, are in this category, and with rising global temperatures and alterations in hydrology, they appear to be increasing in both frequency and distribution.

To address this problem, there is an urgent need to preserve habitats and reduce deforestation rates worldwide. Measures to reduce demand for timber and oil, as well as to discourage extractive industries, can help preserve natural habitats such as rainforests, which are considered vital sources of human health, medicinal plants and clean air. Habitat preservation is also a vital measure to curb the transmission and emergence of infectious diseases.

MAKOUA, CONGO, ÁFRICA - 27 DE SEPTIEMBRE: Un coche y un cartel advierten a los visitantes de que se trata de una zona infectada por el ébola. Cartel informando a los visitantes de que es una zona infectada de ébola. 27 de septiembre de 2013,Congo, África. Shutterstock.

The impact of globalization, trade and travel on infectious diseases.

The spread of infectious diseases is facilitated by human activities such as globalization, increased trade and travel. The rise of global trade and transportation networks, coupled with increased human mobility, has created a potentially explosive mix for the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. An example of this is the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and quickly spread to other countries. The disease initially went unnoticed due to lack of awareness and the ease with which it could be spread through air travel. Another example is the H1N1 influenza pandemic that spread from Mexico to other parts of the world in 2009. This virus spread rapidly due to international air travel, with cases reported in countries as far away as New Zealand and the United Kingdom within weeks of the initial outbreak.

Globalization can also create favorable conditions for the emergence and spread of pathogens, as has been observed in the case of malaria. The expansion of global trade and travel has led to the introduction of new vectors and their pathogens into areas with no previous exposure or immunity, leading to new disease outbreaks. For example, the Anopheles mosquito, responsible for malaria transmission, was introduced to Africa through the slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, travel and trade have reintroduced the mosquito to areas where it had previously been eradicated or contained, leading to new outbreaks of the disease in places such as the United States.

There is no doubt that human activities have facilitated the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. It is important that we understand the mechanisms underlying this process in order to mitigate its effects. Effective measures could include improved surveillance systems, stricter regulations on the international transport of goods, and the promotion of vaccination and awareness programs for travelers. Governments and international organizations must take coordinated action to address the problem of emerging infectious diseases and their impact on human health and welfare.

You, as an individual, also have a role to play. You can do your part to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by maintaining good hygiene, following travel guidelines and supporting public health measures. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Zona de deforestación ilegal de la vegetación autóctona de la selva amazónica brasileña. Shutterstock.

The role of habitat destruction and climate change in the emergence and spread of infectious diseases

The destruction of natural habitats and climate change are two interconnected environmental factors that are accelerating the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. The alteration of natural ecosystems through activities such as deforestation, mining and urbanization is reducing biodiversity and making it easier for zoonotic pathogens to pass from animals to humans. For example, the rapid expansion of agriculture and urbanization in areas of South Asia has led to the destruction of natural habitats and the encroachment of humans into formerly wild areas, increasing the risk of exposure to zoonotic pathogens such as Nipah virus and Hantavirus.

Climate change is also having a significant impact on the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, as well as extreme weather events, are altering the geographic ranges of many disease vectors and amplifying disease transmission. For example, the spread of malaria is closely linked to changes in temperature and rainfall, which affect mosquito reproduction and survival. In addition, the increased frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heat waves lead to the displacement of populations and the collapse of public health infrastructure, increasing the risk of disease transmission.

Preserving biodiversity is crucial to maintaining ecosystem resilience and reducing the likelihood of disease outbreaks. Habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity and the introduction of invasive species can alter the delicate balance between pathogens and their hosts, leading to the emergence of new diseases. Preserving natural habitats, protecting biodiversity hotspots and preventing the introduction of invasive species are important steps to mitigate the impacts of habitat destruction and climate change on human health.

Human Activities and Biodiversity Loss

Over the last century, human activities have caused a significant reduction in global biodiversity. A wide range of activities, from deforestation to climate change, can have a negative impact on ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity loss.

Habitat destruction is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. Human activities, such as urbanization, land use changes and conversion of natural land to agricultural land, can lead to habitat loss and ecosystem fragmentation, which can have many effects on other species, including extinction.

Climate change is another significant threat to biodiversity, as it is changing habitats and climate-dependent plant and animal species. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and rising sea levels are contributing to biodiversity loss. For example, coral reefs, which are critical habitats for many marine species, are highly susceptible to bleaching and death due to ocean warming.

Invasive species are another mechanism of biodiversity loss. Invasive species are often introduced into new ecosystems through human activities, such as trade or transport, and compete with native species for resources. They can outcompete native species, reducing biodiversity by eliminating entire communities of organisms.

Biodiversity loss can lead to cascading consequences for ecosystems and the provision of ecosystem services to humans. For example, ecosystems with low biodiversity are less resilient to change and are more vulnerable to catastrophic disturbances, such as forest fires or natural disasters. In addition, many plant and animal species provide essential ecosystem services, such as pollination, maintenance of soil health, pest control and water purification. When these species disappear, humans ultimately bear the costs.

Despite the significant threat that biodiversity loss poses to global ecosystems and human well-being, there are steps we can take to address the problem. Emphasis on conservation and sustainability practices can help protect natural ecosystems and guard against devastating consequences in the future.

Basura derramada en la playa de una ciudad. Contaminación ambiental. Shutterstock.

Current Efforts to Prevent Zoonotic Diseases

Faced with the seriousness of zoonotic diseases, more and more groups, from local to international levels, are making efforts to combat them. The objective is twofold: to protect human health and maintain biological diversity. After all, one cannot exist without the other.

Prevention of zoonotic diseases begins with surveillance, closely monitoring diseases and their vectors in animal populations. This type of surveillance, known as “One Health“, recognizes that human health is intrinsically linked to the health of animals and the environment. By monitoring animal health, we can have an early warning of possible zoonotic disease outbreaks.

In addition, education is a key tool. Teaching safe practices in agriculture and wildlife interaction can prevent the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. For example, safe handling and proper cooking of meat can prevent illnesses such as salmonella. In addition, education on how to avoid mosquito bites can prevent diseases such as malaria and Zika.

Finally, habitat preservation and biodiversity are also essential to prevent zoonotic diseases. As mentioned above, habitat loss and reduced biodiversity can increase the risk of zoonotic diseases. Therefore, protecting natural habitats and promoting biodiversity can help prevent future outbreaks.

Este paciente hospitalizado presentaba síntomas precoces, aunque progresivos, de lo que se confirmó como un caso de rabia. A medida que la enfermedad progresa, aparecen síntomas neurológicos, que pueden incluir insomnio, ansiedad, confusión, parálisis leve o parcial, excitación, alucinaciones, agitación, hipersalivación, dificultad para tragar e hidrofobia, y finalmente la muerte.

Towards a Healthy and Sustainable Future

At this point, it is clear that human health and the health of the planet are intrinsically connected. We cannot expect to enjoy good health while we continue to degrade the environment and reduce biodiversity. Infectious diseases, including zoonotic diseases, are just one aspect of how our health depends on the health of the planet.

Efforts to prevent zoonotic diseases and preserve biodiversity are therefore vital to our survival and well-being. And while institutions and organizations have an important role to play, you, as an individual, also have a role. Your everyday choices, from what you eat to how you get around, can have an impact on the health of the planet and, in turn, your own health.

But don’t be fooled. It is not just an individual effort. We need systemic changes, from the way we do business to the way we govern, to ensure a healthy and sustainable future. This means putting pressure on our leaders and companies to make sustainable and responsible decisions. It means voting with our money, supporting companies that respect the environment. And it means educating ourselves and others about the importance of biodiversity and sustainability.

Make no mistake: the task is daunting. But it is also vital. And, if human history has taught us anything, it is that we are capable of great things when we unite for a common cause. So, as we move into the future, let us remember that our health and the health of the planet are one and the same. And let’s work together to protect them. Because, at the end of the day, we only have this planet, and we only have this life. It is time to act accordingly.


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About me

Photographer. Digital artist. Creative director at Creatures United. Zoology student. Emotionally involved in biodiversity loss and climate change.

For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about two things: animals and image creation. Two paths that ended up converging and have led me to do what I do.


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