The World Health Organization is calling for action to stem the growing spread of deadly infections such as monkeypox and Ebola between animals and humans in Africa.
A new WHO analysis finds zoonotic outbreaks on the African continent have increased by 63% from 2012 to 2022 compared to the previous decade.
Globally, the WHO says more than 60% of human infectious diseases, and more than 75% of emerging infectious diseases, are caused by pathogens found in wild or domestic animals. It says those diseases sicken about one billion people and kill millions every year.
WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said zoonotic diseases pose a severe threat in Africa. In the past decade, she said outbreaks of the animal-transmitted illnesses accounted for one in three confirmed public health events in the region.
“A deeper dive reveals that Ebola and similar hemorrhagic fevers constitute nearly 70% of these outbreaks,” she said. “The remainder include, among others, monkeypox, dengue fever, anthrax, and plague. Although there has been a notable increase in monkeypox cases since April this year, compared to the same period in 2021, the positive news is the numbers are still lower than for the 2020 outbreak peak.”
That year, the WHO recorded its highest ever monthly cases in the region. So far this year, the health agency has reported more than 2,000 suspected cases of monkeypox. Of those, only 203 have been confirmed. Most cases and deaths are among males, with an average age of 17.
Moeti noted infections originating in animals have been jumping to humans for centuries, but the risk of mass infections and deaths has been relatively limited in Africa.
“As rising urbanization encroaches on the natural habitats of the continent’s wildlife, and the demand for food from an especially fast-growing population burgeons, the risk is heighted,” she said. “The addition of improved road, rail, and airlinks, which remove the natural barrier that poor transportation infrastructure provided, opens the way for the spread of zoonotic disease outbreaks from remote to urban areas.”
Moeti said Africa cannot be allowed to become a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases. She said an “all-hands-on-deck” approach is needed to counter the threat.
She said experts in human, animal, and environmental health must work together with communities to prevent and control zoonotic outbreaks from spreading across the continent.