Five ways FAO fights for animal health – and why

Keeping animals healthy prevents disease outbreaks and pandemics among humans

FAO fights for animal health to help millions of people across the world stay safe and protect their livelihoods. ©FAO/K.Purevraqchaa


Animals and humans are living in closer proximity than ever before due to population growth, urbanisation, deforestation and climate change. It is more important than ever that our animals are healthy – not just for their sakes, but ours too.

Millions of people rely on animals not only for food but also for livelihoods and core needs such as clothing, transport and power. However, animal health can also greatly affect human health. In fact, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are ‘zoonotic’- meaning that they can spread from animals to the human population. Zoonotic diseases have been responsible for some of the most damaging disease outbreaks in recent decades such as SARS, Ebola and Avian influenza.

Whether a disease spreads in a particular region (epidemics) or more widely across multiple countries (pandemics), it can lead to losses of life, negatively impact livelihoods and inflict a devastating impact on development. Usually, diseases disproportionately affect poorer communities, women and children.

Protecting people, animals and the environment starts by stopping disease outbreaks, which could become pandemics. Here are five of ways that FAO’s work helps achieve this:

1.       Strengthening animal health systems every day

The best method of protection is prevention. FAO is dedicated to building the capacity of at-risk countries so that they can swiftly respond to and manage outbreaks. FAO monitors local animal health capacity and delivers training and technical assistance to countries on disease surveillance, laboratory diagnostics, outbreak reporting and investigation, as well as preparedness and response.

2.       Detecting outbreaks at their source

FAO has developed unique software and systems to receive, analyse and model potential disease outbreaks. Using data received daily from 190 countries across the world, the FAO Global Animal Disease Information System (EMPRES-i) generates maps of potential threats. This links up to the Global Early Warning System (GLEWS+) which shares information with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

The EMPRES system works due to collaboration with extensive networks of FAO country and regional offices, who are in constant contact with governments, local farmers and animal health professionals. Smartphone users in remote areas can submit data directly using FAO’s Event Mobile Application, helping gather up-to-date knowledge in real time. FAO uses databases and maps generated by these systems to spot trends in animal disease circulation and forecast animal disease threats of potential regional or international concern, helping communities prepare and respond quickly.

Many people live in close proximity with animals and depend on them for their food security. This is why we must be careful of ‘zoonotic’ diseases, which spread from animals to humans. Left: ©FAO/Pius Ekpei Right: ©FAO/Karen Minasyan

3.       Conducting expert analysis

There is a buzzing community of veterinarians and experts at FAO headquarters in Rome and in field offices who are highly skilled at monitoring disease situations. They analyse disease data to create outbreak forecast maps and help us all stay one step ahead of potential threats. In order to decide on how to respond, they use information continually monitored and assessed by colleagues in the field on local contexts, expertise, equipment and the capacity of national laboratories to ensure that at-risk areas are positioned to combat potential outbreaks. Such expertise is typically a result of collaboration with global and regional partners.

4.       Issuing warning and guidance to countries worldwide

FAO specialists regularly share updates on disease threats with governments, animal health professionals and other interested parties. This ensures that decision makers in at-risk areas, including country Chief Veterinary Officers, are up-to-date on any potential risks. Such information often takes the form of Early Warning bulletins and action reports that give as much useful information on the threat as possible and which encourage governments to respond with appropriate measures including surveillance, vaccination or movement control.

5.       Fielding missions in affected countries

FAO also makes sure that it has staff on the ground in an emergency to deliver support. FAO’s Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Disease plans and delivers veterinary assistance to member countries who respond to animal health crises. These teams have provided emergency assistance in hundreds of outbreaks, such as Avian Influenza and Rift Valley fever, in Africa and Asia over the last decade. When assistance is requested, FAO’s Emergency Management Centre for Animal Health deploys expert missions from headquarters to assist countries to prepare or respond to disease outbreaks.

In cases where equipment is lacking, FAO’s emergency stockpile can deliver resources to where they are most needed to facilitate rapid response and contain diseases. These resources include personal protective equipment, diagnostic laboratory kits and sample shipping containers.

Healthy animals mean healthy humans! ©FAO/Louai Beshara

Healthy animals, healthy humans

The United States Agency for International Development has been an important funder and long-time partner in FAO's efforts to combat animal disease threats across the globe, through the Emerging Pandemic Threats programme and the Global Health Security Agenda.

In one of the episodes of Netflix’s new series, Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, FAO specialists talk first-hand about how the front line of the battle is in farms across the planet and how FAO and its partners are working to advance a One Health approach, involving animal and human health, to help stave off the next global pandemic.   

Infectious zoonotic diseases are on the rise. Only through information sharing, concrete action and collaboration can we help safeguard human and animal health. Protecting the health of animals is an essential factor in achieving food security, resilient livelihoods, environmental protection and global health security – contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-being) and all the Sustainable Development Goals.

Learn more:

3. Good health and well-being, 17. Partnership for the goals