As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warn that emerging viruses are inevitable in the years to come and better surveillance is needed to stay ahead of potential new pathogens.
The recent appearance of monkeypox has left researchers scrambling to find out how the rare infectious virus is spreading in countries, including Canada, that don’t typically see it.
Meanwhile, cases of severe acute hepatitis in children have also raised concerns in several countries.
“Emerging infectious disease can always hit us,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.
“And we should be as prepared as we can, which means reinforcing the global public health capacity,” she said during a news conference on Friday.
Climate change and the increased human-to-wildlife interaction are contributing factors when it comes to the emergence of viruses, which are “largely human-made,” experts say.
This is why outbreaks of endemic diseases are becoming more persistent and frequent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Animals and humans are changing their behavior, including food-seeking habits to adjust to rapidly changing weather conditions linked to climate change, said Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies director, during a news conference on Wednesday.
As a result, diseases that typically circulate in animals are increasingly jumping into humans, he said.
“Unfortunately, that ability to amplify that disease and move it on within our communities is increasing, so both disease emergence and disease amplification factors have increased.”
The warmer air and water make it easier for viruses and bacteria to thrive and multiply, explained Dr. Horacio Bach, an infectious diseases expert at the University of British Columbia.
It’s a “tumultuous situation” that has been brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
“We are in a fragile balance with our environment,” Vinh told Global News. “And unfortunately, if we don’t respect our environment, the environment is going to introduce to us bugs that we’re not prepared for.”
Is there any link to COVID?
A global population exhausted following two years of COVID-19 has had to face news of the arrival of monkeypox, though experts do not believe the latest outbreak will turn into another pandemic.
While both are infectious diseases, Bach said the spread of monkeypox is not linked to the global transmission of COVID-19.
“It’s a completely different virus, so it’s not in the (same) family (as COVID),” he said.
Experts are calling monkeypox, which is endemic in at least 10 African countries, a “neglected disease,” as not enough research has been done or drugs developed to treat it.
While investigations are ongoing, “the sudden and unexpected appearance of monkeypox simultaneously in several non-endemic countries suggests that there may have been undetected transmission for some unknown duration of time followed by recent amplifier events,” the WHO said in an update on Saturday.
As for severe acute hepatitis in kids, some studies have pointed to a possible link with COVID-19 infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the infection with adenovirus, a common childhood virus, is the leading hypothesis for the recent cases.
Both SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and adenovirus have been detected in a number of the cases.
However, the exact role of these viruses in causing severe hepatitis is not yet clear, according to the WHO.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 restrictions and strict lockdowns have resulted in a change in the cycles of infection for other viruses such as influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto.
This is because newborn babies and infants have not been exposed to routine childhood illnesses, such as common-cold viruses, either through the mother in the womb or their older siblings.
“A lot of the viruses have shifted their seasons, but also some of the viruses are more severe because the babies haven’t been exposed to them through their maternal antibodies,” Banerji told Global News.
Global response and surveillance
To better respond to future outbreaks, experts say better surveillance, global collaboration and health capacity building is needed.
“Capacitating every country to a reasonable level is really important,” said Tam, adding that there are “definitely gaps.”
Vinh agreed, saying the global response should be equitable and come early before the outbreak becomes large, spreading to different parts of the world.
“We need to be actively doing research and looking for potential new pathogens that are coming so that when they do appear and become a problem, we will already have solutions in hand,” he said.
“It’s not when the infection is spreading in your community that you start studying the bug, it’s well before that.”
— With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press