Zika, a mosquito-borne virus currently spreading across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus is suspected to cause a birth defect known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads, a condition which can cause brain damage, developmental defects, and debilitation. According to WHO, as many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year. The virus has also been linked to neurological syndromes. As these links have been drawn, and the virus continues to spread rapidly, Zika’s risk profile has evolved from “a mild threat” to “one of alarming proportions.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 1.10.01 AMSanofi Pasteur

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Zika first emerged in 1947 and since then cases only occurred occasionally in Africa and some Pacific islands. But last May, the Zika virus appeared in Brazil and has been spreading rapidly. Unfortunately, Zika is not the only emerging infectious disease (EID) to have surfaced and developed quickly in recent years. Ebola, SARS, bird flu, swine flu, and several others have been making headlines as they each spread across the human population at unprecedented speeds. The increase in EIDs in recent times has been confirmed by a scientific study which analyzed the occurrence of 335 such diseases in the past 60 years and found that the incidence of EIDs has grown dramatically over this period.

So what is causing this increased incidence of dangerous viral diseases? As it turns out, there is a correlation between the current health crisis and our global meat-heavy diet. Studies are linking the recent surge in viruses to our increased global impact on the environment, mainly the intensification of farming and climate change.

Animal Agriculture’s Giant Role in Climate Change

It’s no longer a well-kept secret that raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs is responsible for widespread environmental damage.  According to the Worldwatch Institute, animal agriculture produces 51 percent of annual worldwide emissions, with the industry creating over 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.

This large-scale pollution of our atmosphere is causing climate change, and a changing climate and global warming facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. Zika is a vector-borne disease, meaning it is spread through insects, in this case, the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Warming temperatures are not only allowing mosquitoes to thrive — as they fare best in hot and humid conditions — but are also accelerating their larvae’s maturation period and shortening the incubation time of the viruses mosquitoes carry.

The Asian tiger mosquito has also been known to transmit the virus, and climate change has dramatically increased this insect’s range. It now ranges as far north as New York and Chicago in summer. Extreme weather events caused by climate change are also helping spread disease. The WHO states in a release about Zika that “conditions associated with this year’s El Niño weather pattern are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas.”

Deforestation Due to Meat Industry Creates Mosquito-Breeding Grounds

The need to grow feed in massive quantities for the world’s livestock has caused large-scale deforestation, especially in the Amazon rainforest. The beef industry is responsible for as much as 70 percent of Amazon deforestation. As cleared land collects rainwater better than rainforests, it provides a suitable breeding ground for mosquitoes, allowing more of these infected insects to survive and spread disease. Because of this, deforestation has been linked to an increased incidence of malaria and other vector-borne illnesses such as Zika, whose current strain originated in Brazil.

A WHO statement on the Zika virus reads, “the level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty.” No one knows how far Zika will spread and how much damage it will cause. What is certain, however, is the large-scale damage currently caused to our planet and our global health by animal agriculture.

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What You Can Do

Clearly, animal agriculture is a tremendously destructive industry and its unscrupulous practices put our global health at risk in more ways than one. As Dr. Akhtar writes about the high incidence of new EIDs and Zika’s rapid spread, “Unless we take a hard look at the choices we make in life, such as eating animals and reproducing at such a high rate, new pathogens will show themselves at an ever-increasing rate.” 

As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system and pave the way for a truly sustainable future.

By choosing to eat more plant-based foods, you can drastically cut your carbon footprint, save precious water supplies and help ensure that vital crop resources are fed to people, rather than livestock. With the wealth of available plant-based options available, it has never been easier to eat with the planet in mind.

Our everyday food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, help improve global health, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future. Join One Green Planet’s #EatForthePlanet movement. 

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Lead image source: The Humane Society of the United States