Education for Surviving and Preventing Pandemics

by Lorena Mucke

In late 2019, the world learned about COVID-19, which quickly unraveled into one of the worst pandemics in human history. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and many other reputable health agencies around the world, this virus most likely originated in a live animal wet market in China, where wild animals are traded and sold alongside meat and produce – the perfect setting for bacteria and viruses to combine, rotate, mutate, spread, and ultimately jump from animals to humans. 

Sadly, wet markets are not much different from modern animal farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where farmed animals (cows, pigs, and chickens, etc.) are confined by the thousands or tens of thousands in cramped, filthy spaces allowing for pathogens to spread easily and rapidly. Not surprisingly, according to the CDC, zoonotic pathogens are responsible for 3 out of every 4 new infectious diseases in people, a fact I learned early on as a Zoologist. 

Truly appalling, what we are experiencing is not new. It’s happened numerous times before at different scales and most point to our use and abuse of animals. For starters, the Spanish Flu (1918), became the most devastating pandemic in recent history. The culprit, a virus known as the H1N1 with genes of avian origin, meaning it likely originated in birds. 

Another one, Mad Cow Disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a progressive neurological disorder of cattle originated as a result of our totally bizarre, unnatural practice of feeding cows to cows. Cows are herbivores! This disease presents in humans as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and is always fatal. The only way to get it is to eat the meat of an infected cow.

Next, Ebola Virus Disease, a rare and deadly illness seems to have originated in fruit bats or nonhuman primates. People become infected with Ebola either through contact with infected animals (butchering, cooking, or eating them) or through contact with the bodily fluid of infected humans. 

Avian Influenza H5N1 or bird flu is a highly infectious, severe respiratory disease with a fatality rate of 50% in humans. Open-air markets and modern farms, where eggs and birds are sold in crowded and unsanitary conditions give the virus the optimal opportunity to spread. 

Swine flu (H1N1)pdm09 became a pandemic in 2009. It’s well-documented that pigs often have been infected by these types of flu viruses and that swine workers and their family members are at increased risk for swine influenza virus.

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV believed to have originated in Chinese horseshoe bats and then transmitted to civets. The butchering and consumption of civets is likely how the SARS virus was first passed to humans.

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is another respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus MERS-CoV and believed to have originated in camels used by humans in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The pattern is clear: our irresponsible interaction with animals is the cause of most epidemics and pandemics. 

An animal-based diet, the norm in the Western world and quickly being adopted by the rest, has placed industrial animal agriculture as an accepted yet horrific system. There is no other way to produce animal products at the current scale — at least not until cell-based or cultivated meat comes to the market. Not only does this exacerbate the rates of the main chronic diseases that plague our society but brings us closer to the next epidemic or pandemic.

But why haven’t we learned from experience? Why are we failing? Certainly, our food system is not guided by ethics, integrity, or the concern for human health, animal welfare, or environmental sustainability. So why do most consumers continue to support it? I’m convinced that an important aspect of our failure is the lack of education and hence awareness. 

Without fact-based information and accompanying tools, people tend to default into participating in practices mindlessly. Education encourages critical thinking and challenges assumptions. Education helps us solve problems and prompts us to replace dangerous, nocive practices with beneficial ones. 

Science-based knowledge tells us that adopting a plant-centered diet prevents epidemics and pandemics. Educating teenagers and young adults about our food system ensures we raise a generation that recognizes that our responsible, respectful, mindful interaction with the natural world is of paramount importance if we want to thrive as a species, while co-existing with others and preserving the environment. 

Just like wearing a mask helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, not eating animals helps prevent future pandemics. 

We, at the Educated Choices Program, are committed to educating for a better world. 

Lorena Mucke is the Founder and CEO of the Educated Choices Program.

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