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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, August 27 2020

A modern menace: Emerging and re-emerging diseases

In 2009 the United Church of God published the following article concerning disease pandemics, which is more relevant than ever as the world struggles to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

by Becky Sweat

In April 2009, when the first cases of H1N1 swine flu were detected in Mexico and the United States, health officials went on high alert, declaring the first global flu epidemic in 41 years.

At that time Klaus Stohr, Director of the influenza task force for the WHO, warned there were far more difficult-to-treat infectious diseases than 20 or 30 years ago, and that infectious diseases had once again become the leading cause of death in the world—something that hadn’t been the case since the pre-antibiotic era of the early 1900s.

Many scientists believe mankind is unintentionally creating its own disease problems: “In almost every case humans are the most important single factor in the surge of new diseases, whether it’s feeding cow tissue to cattle to cause mad cow disease, people eating exotic animals in the case of Ebola, or air travel spreading dengue around the world,” claims Thomas Monath, M.D., chief scientific officer with Acambis Inc., a vaccine development company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dr Monath maintained humans are not simply victims of emerging infections, but we’re making changes in our environment or lifestyles to cause the emergence or spread of disease.

Agricultural Practices and Consumption of Exotic Animals

One of the primary ways new diseases emerge is through “genetic recombination,” which occurs when two or more animal species exchange the viruses each carries.

For example, this is happening as a result of a common farming practice in Asia: “Ducks or chickens are kept in cages hung above pigs, which are housed in pens directly above fishponds, where other types of fowl may also swim and eliminate their own wastes,” notes Bruno Chomel, Ph.D., D.V.M., a veterinary epidemiologist specializing in zoonotic diseases at the University of California College of Veterinary Medicine.

Farmers use this method to save money on pig feed and increase yields of fish. The pigs feed on the duck droppings, and the pig manure fertilizes the fishponds. But a pig eating duck droppings can be infected by viruses the ducks may have, which may include both avian and human flu viruses. These can then combine with the pig’s influenza viruses, which is how the H1N1 influenza virus—a mixture of avian, human and pig flu viruses—came to be.

Recombination can also occur when humans eat exotic animals like civet cats, coral snakes, flying squirrels, badgers and other non-domesticated animals, considered delicacies in some countries. Any viruses the animal may be carrying can combine with viruses the person may have, sometimes resulting in a new pathogen infecting human beings.

That is apparently how HIV, the deadly virus that causes AIDS, emerged. HIV is a fusion of the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which infects monkeys and apes, and a similar type of virus that infects people.

Changing Land Use Increases Contact

Ecological changes often cause disease emergence when remote environments become more populated as a result of deforestation, dam projects, irrigation, road construction and extensive agriculture. For example, mankind’s first contact with the Ebola virus occurred in the late 1970s when people began clearing the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rapid International Travel Allows Quick Spread

Since the third quarter of the 20th century, we have been able to travel huge distances in a matter of hours—well within the incubation period of many infectious diseases. In the time between getting infected and developing clinical signs of disease an international traveller may expose hundreds of people to a virus.

Poverty, Disease and Urbanization Inextricably Linked

Not surprisingly, the poorest nations usually have the worst problems with infectious diseases. But just as diseases do not stay in the poorer parts of a town, they do not confine themselves to poorer nations.

Increasing numbers of people are also moving from rural areas to large cities to find work. In this way, localized contagions from villages in remote areas reach large population centres, where the newly introduced infection multiplies and spreads along highways and railroads and by airplane.

Forced Displacement Due to War or Civil Strife

The number of displaced people is rising due to conflict and this also has a direct impact on the proliferation of infectious diseases. Dr. Monath explains that: “Refugees are often in poor health and … any pathogens they may be infected with are transported ... to wherever they end up.”

A case in point would be the 800,000 Rwandan refugees who migrated into Zaire in 1994. Cholera and shigella dysentery swept through the camps, killing nearly 50,000 people in the first month.

Human Morality and Disease

The 1960s brought dramatic changes in human behaviour, particularly in terms of sexual activity. Having multiple or concurrent sexual partners was unacceptable in the early 1900s, but by the latter half of the 20th century it had become the norm in many societies. At the same time, intravenous drug use became rampant, with drug users often sharing needles.

This behaviour fuelled the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, genital herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases—all of which are transmitted through the transference of body fluids.

Overuse of Antibiotics Creates Deadly New Superbugs

Widespread antibiotic use, even when antibiotics may not be called for, has created new antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Hugh Pennington, President of the Society for General Microbiology in the United Kingdom, explains the process this way: “When people take antibiotics, the drug kills the defenceless bacteria, leaving behind—or ‘selecting’—those that can resist it. These renegade bacteria then multiply and become the predominant microorganism.”

Adding to the problem, North American livestock producers have been feeding antibiotics to their animals to promote growth and as a preventative disease-control measure. This has turned the livestock into a reservoir of drug-resistant germs, and if people eat undercooked, contaminated meat, they can become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Biblical Perspectives

  • A lot of the zoonotic diseases wouldn’t be a problem if people weren’t consuming biblically “unclean” animals, which harbour contagious diseases domesticated “clean” animals do not. We’re told in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 which types of animals should and should not be eaten.

  • Deuteronomy 23:12-13 instructs human waste to be buried outside the community, away from where people are living, but people forced to live in overcrowded megacities and refugee camps are faced with inadequate waste disposal systems, resulting in contaminated food and water supplies.

  • The Bible is also clear about what constitutes sexually immoral behaviour, which is the root cause of the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In Leviticus 18 and 20 God prohibits incestuous relationships, extramarital and premarital sex, homosexuality and unnatural acts with animals. 

Ultimately, disease outbreaks and pandemics are a result of mankind’s broken relationship with God. God warned of the consequences of disobedience, which included the outbreak of disease, but as the ancient Israelites persistently disobeyed God’s instruction, so has every society since, and we therefore reap the consequences.