Coping with risks posed by avian influenza and other infectious diseases
21 April 2011 - Societies around the world are frequently exposed to recurring risks including natural and man-made disasters. Over time people have developed complex resilience mechanisms. In terms of costs resulting from disasters, there are numerous figures that need to be accounted for in assessments. These costs range from economic to material to psychological. For instance, disease outbreaks cause death and illnesses in animals and humans. In animals, livestock mortalities decimate income-generating assets and limits livelihoods alternatives. In humans, illnesses not only reduce productivity but also carry economic repercussions in terms of healthcare and medications, among other associated expenses. Moreover, disasters (including earthquakes and tsunamis) can cause trauma reactions, as well as anxiety, depression, and grief. These shocks to animals and humans increase the prevalence of depression, post-traumatic disorders, shocks, sicknesses, and physical problems.
Anecdotes and experiences recorded after disasters show that in almost every case the most common response to natural and man-made disasters was a relatively quick recovery, reliance of social safety nets (i.e. support from family, friends, and neighbors), and some residual psychological harm. Scientific research tells us that because disasters are so pervasively threatening and hugely devastating, they activate the most primitive brain regions in humans. When faced with threats and hazards, the common human experiences are distress, intense fear, and panic. Brains instinctively go into fight-or-flight responses. These reactions are expected. Humans and designed to have them, and they turn out to be effective in helping mobilize survival instincts, gearing up defenses, and reacting promptly to threats and hazards.
The degree of risk coping by vulnerable populations is closely associated with robustness of state services and national governance. During crises, the social contract between citizenries and their governments is either strengthened or weakened, depending on how the responses to disasters are handled. For example, in 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that swept through southern China created anxiety, disorientation, rising fears, and trepidation among domestic and foreign audiences. Studies demonstrate that providing the public with realistic information about both risks and recovery helps reduce anger, fear, uncertainty, and worry. It also helps promote community action. A year later, in 2004, another example with H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1 HPAI) in Thailand showed that early communication with the public, the media, and consistent liaising with international authorities can significantly aid in regaining the trust of local communities on government actions. This is important to underscore because the breakup of social contracts can be caustic. Popular mistrust of the government after a disaster erodes morale, disintegrates communal cohesion, and can lead to collective victimizations.
An increasing body of work suggests that infectious diseases will continue to emerge with the assistance of rising population growth, increased pressures on livestock production systems, more urbanization in the developing world, human encroachment of jungles and game reserves, deepening globalization of commerce and trade, and more frequent contacts between humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. As these threats and hazards rise as part of daily lives, so does the risks of new epidemics to develop. With the recent global scare created by pandemic influenza H1N1 in 2009, coupled with recurrent earthquakes, eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, and wars, a sobering fact started to permeate our thoughts—there are limits to what humans can endure. In the end, when adversity is indeed relentless, when we are confronted with repeated casualties, repeated emergencies and endless streams of bad news, our ability to respond begins to break down. All this indicates that coping with risks is more complex than initially thought.
For its part, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) puts in place technical cooperation programs with member countries to mitigate disease risks and minimize social threats. Within the Animal Production and Health Division (AGA), the unit responsible to respond to emergencies of animal nature is the Crisis Management Centre-Animal Health (CMC-AH). In collaboration with other international agencies, FAO is able to help populations around the world cope with risks posed by diseases, as well as to devise livelihoods alternatives that aid in recovery efforts after disasters occur.
FAO of the UN is an institutional partner of World Veterinary Year (Vet2011).