How deforestation is connected to our health: ‘Nature is really trying to tell us something’

Forests are being ripped apart all over the world

The Amazon rainforest is being cut down, burned up, and destroyed in every way possible. And while you may not think that affects you, since you live in a different part of the world - think again!

See, deforestation or the act of destroying forests affects everyone and everything on this planet in ways you probably never thought of before. Most of us link deforestation with oxygen and worse air quality, which is accurate, but it’s so much more harmful than that.

When the trees go, the animals who lived in those trees have to go somewhere else. Often that means those displaced animals mesh with humans and cohabitate, creating new exposure. That’s where things get tricky because some animals can pass along diseases to humans, and believe it or not, in some instances, humans can give diseases right back to animals. This process is called zoonosis, and these diseases are known as zoonotic diseases.

The reason this information is timely is because of our current pandemic. Many believe that a bat or pangolin transmitted coronavirus to a human. Zoonotic diseases have been around for a very long time, and you’ve heard of many of them; West Nile virus, rabies, Lyme disease, salmonella, avian flu, swine flu, SARS, ebola, malaria, HIV, and many more. I’m sure you recognize quite a few of those and know how damaging they are.

As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s crucial to realize the fragile state of the earth’s ecosystem and how delicate it can be. If we destroy nature, we will destroy one of our best safeguards against sickness.

Deforestation on the rise

The rate of deforestation is about two to one over forest expansion. Meaning for every 1,000 trees planted, 2,000 are destroyed. Greenpeace has been on the frontlines of preservation for almost 50 years now. Their forest campaign director, Daniel Brindis, says way too many trees are cut down, “Deforestation is on the rise. We used to say that we would lose a football field worth of forests globally, every three seconds, and right now every two seconds we lose a football field of forests.”

In Manaus, a city at the center of the Amazon, many activists stand up for the forest and indigenous people. The metropolis of about 2.5-million is one of the areas where people like Rômulo Batista fight for nature, “It’s more than time that we as human beings start to change the way to use the nature. We are not the owners of the nature. We are part of that.”

Batista grew up in Brazil, a few hours south of Manaus. He says he’s watched the forest get smaller and smaller over the years. He is currently the senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil. For him and millions more, this isn’t a far off problem. One that’s out of sight out of mind. It’s right there, staring them in the face.

Not just the Amazon

The Amazon isn’t the only forest under attack. Forests are being ripped apart all over the world. Dr. Amy Vittor is the assistant professor of medicine at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. She says humans have a knack for making drastic changes to their surroundings, “We alter our habitats, as we move into our habitats, as we create cities to create suburban neighborhoods, villages. We also alter the flow of water, the hydrology, of places. We alter the climate, don’t we? And as such, we are creating essentially innumerable changes in our environment.” Vittor says these modifications sometimes rid the area of disease. Still, the opposite is also true, “We are also allowing for species that are very well adapted to change, like rats, for example. We’re creating a lot of habitats that they’re able to move into,” says Vittor.

Emergence of disease

She points out that by allowing rats, other rodents, and insects to cohabitate with people, we’re opening up more opportunity for zoonotic diseases, “One could say that these species that are so well adapted to the generalist to moving into these new kinds of habitats, and do not invest much in their immune system, then maybe more permissive to carrying viruses and other pathogens. So, quite possibly, it’s not a coincidence that we’re setting up the environmental conditions that are ripe for species to thrive, that have co-passengers.”

When talking about zoonotic disease, one of the numerous tricky spots is that people don’t always know that they’ve caught something until it’s too late. Dr. Joe Eisenberg, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, says spillover events, which means that humans and animals come into close contact and create zoonosis opportunities.

But not all of those events happen in forests, “We think that COVID emergence happened in a similar way that’s ours emergence happening. And some often avian flu occurs this way. And that’s in the wet markets in Asia in China, largely where people are selling wild animal for food and, and so there’s this density of animals density, and these markets are highly, very dense, and that’s where often spillover occurs.”

The environment is complicated and needs balance. Dr. Ari Bernstein, Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health makes it clear. Our health is linked to the earth’s health, “Connecting dots right now could not be easier with Coronavirus and wildfires and hurricanes,” says Bernstein.

He says you can’t miss the message, “You know, it’s in our faces, nature is really trying to tell us something. And I think I think that’s the part that we need to work on is really making sure that we acknowledge and understand how our health is not really about, you know, the foods we eat, and the medicines we may take and the things that people probably hear about going to a doctor. It’s really fundamentally about the state of the natural world and the climate. And without those things, it really doesn’t matter. Like a lot of these other things are sort of icing. I mean, they’re important, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not going to save us from pandemics and climate change and these other things that are just overwhelming, potentially if we don’t address them.”

There’s a lot more to this story! Next time: Why deforestation is happening and who’s behind it.

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