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For now, the monkey pox epidemic has subsided, but the course of events worries many epidemiologists.

The new monkey poop epidemic that has erupted in Europe and the United States in recent weeks is not just a threat to public health. It is also an alarm signal.

More and more dangerous viruses, which have evolved in animal populations, are crossing into the human population. Bird flu. SEA. SARS-CoV-1. And of course SARS-CoV-2, which has killed 6.3 million people since the very first infection in Wuhan, China, 30 months ago.

It is not difficult to understand why these “zoonotic” viral epidemics from animals to humans are becoming more severe and more frequent. We cut down more and more forests where animals live, and expose them to us and us to them. Climate change only makes the problem worse. The more deforestation increases, the greater the risk of viral epidemics. ” The combination of climate change, population density and urban sprawl is worrying as I believe we will continue to see new viruses emerge capable of causing diseases in humans said Stephanie James, head of a virus analysis lab at Regis University in Colorado.

The current outbreak of monkey pox, which causes fever and painful rashes and is fatal in about 1 in 100 cases, was first noticed in the UK in early May. It appears that a British resident contracted the disease while traveling in Nigeria, where the monkey pox virus is endemic in rodents and monkey populations. Despite the name, authorities have not determined exactly which animal transmitted the disease. The previous monkey cup outbreak in the United States in 2003 was triggered by a shipment of pet prairie dogs from Ghana to Texas.

Transmitted by saliva or sexual contact, smallpox spread rapidly to Europe, Australia, South America, and the United States. The health authorities have so far identified about 100 cases. No one has died yet in the current outbreak, but that may change as the infections progress.

Compared to the new coronavirus, monkey pox is insignificant. To begin with, smallpox is not nearly as contagious as Covid. ” The virus does not stay in the air like SARS-CoV says James. And because monkey pox is related to smallpox, our vaccines against the latter can prevent the former. ” There is still a reasonable chance of limiting these outbreaks Said Lawrence Gostin, an expert in global health at Georgetown University.

What worries many epidemiologists is what will happen next. While the double shock of Covid and smallpox was terrible, future epidemics could get even worse. And if the current trend continues, they are virtually inevitable.

In fact, the clearing of land for crops, ranches and cities is accelerating, especially in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has undermined the enforcement of environmental laws. For several years, the world has lost about 4 million hectares of forest per year, compared to 2.5 in 2011. Every year, we cut down a forest area corresponding to the size of Cuba. All this deforestation not only brings workers into close contact with exotic species and their equally exotic diseases, but it also causes animals to flee to suburbs and cities in search of shelter and food, exacerbating the risk of disease. The situation becomes even worse if one considers the illegal trade in wild animals for meat and pets.

We find that the increase in zoonotic and vector-borne disease epidemics between 1990 and 2016 is associated with deforestationwrites a team of scientists led by Serge Morand of the University of Montpellier in a study published in 2021. The worst epidemics have been in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Indonesia, in Myanmar and Malaysia, according to the study.

The worst case scenario is that a virus worse than SARS-CoV-2 (either more contagious, more deadly or both) jumps from animals to humans and causes an even more devastating pandemic than the current one. However, it is not a one-way street. Viruses can jump from animals to humans, then back to animals and eventually back to humans, mutating each time. This “reverse zoonotic transmission” can only produce ever more lethal viral variants, said Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society for Clinical Microbiology and Infection, Singapore.

It is high time to start taking samples of animal populations to try to identify the viruses that pose the greatest threat. ” I think we really need to look at the idea of ​​”nightmare” viruses, ie. zoonotic viruses that we have not encountered yet “says James.

But preventing this pandemic requires more than just surveillance. As long as we continue to cut down the planet’s forests and expose ourselves to the animals that live in these forests, we will continue to catch viruses from these animals. It’s about when, not about, another such virus will go global.

David Ax

Translated by the editor

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