Honoring Disease in the Midst of a Pandemic
I once got bitten on the hand by a sea lion that I was working to heal. It was a lightning-fast chomp that sent a searing heat across my hand. I quickly removed my gloves and spent dozens of minutes flushing it with soap, water and iodine. I was lucky that the wound did not progress to the dreaded ‘seal finger’, a bacterial infection caused by Mycoplasma that can cause painful joint infections and permanent disability. Seal finger is a zoonosis — a disease that is spread between humans and animals.
Today is World Zoonoses Day - July 6, 2020. This year’s day holds a particular impact as we sit in the middle of a global pandemic from COVID-19, brought on by a zoonosis that has shattered communities, squeezed economies and fundamentally altered the way we relate to one another.
Marine mammals, the animals I work with, experience a wide variety of zoonotic diseases that highlight the close connection between these beautiful creatures and ourselves. Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that causes outbreaks in sea lions, who experience the same kidney failure seen in humans, pets and livestock.
Influenza virus is another zoonosis with outbreaks reaching the global scale of the pandemic we’re currently weathering. Birds and pigs are the most common mixing bowls from which the flu can jump to humans, but marine mammals can catch and transmit these viruses too. Mass die-offs of hundreds of seals from influenza have occurred around the Atlantic. A case was reported where a human acquired influenza virus after a harbor seal sneezed on them, which resulted in conjunctivitis. And exposure to the pandemic H1N1 virus that was circulating in people in 2009 occurred in northern elephant seals in 2010 off the California coast, showing evidence of movement of influenza viruses between humans and wildlife.
Just as diseases can spread between humans and animals, knowledge is shared between us as well. This zoognosis [zoo- for animal; -gnosis for knowledge] can shout calls of alarm, and can also whisper the answers we’re searching for.
Today, World Zoonoses Day, is not a day to celebrate diseases like coronavirus that have shifted our worlds and thrust us into uncertainty. For me, it is a day to reflect with awe and reverence for the sheer power diseases have for communicating a call of alarm for something that needs to change.
Deforestation and ecosystem destruction push wildlife into the laps of humans, begging for more and more frequent spillover diseases like coronavirus or ebola. Three-quarters of the world’s emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. We can choose to protect ecosystems, and even more importantly, support and provide equity for the vulnerable humans we are often quick to judge for this destruction.
It’s not just infectious diseases that have a story to tell. A decade after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, studies into the resident bottlenose dolphin population affected by the spill tell a story of poor health, failed pregnancies and increased mortality. Our dependence on fossil fuels ensures that these catastrophic mistakes will repeat until we choose to shift to cleaner and healthier ways of harnessing energy.
The shock and pain of a bite wound sparks an immediate, sharp feeling to spur us into recoiling from the danger. Yet for hours, days, sometimes weeks afterward, a dull, throbbing constriction brings a reminder of the wound, asking us to keep listening, not to forget.
We may be in the shock and recoil of this pandemic now, protecting ourselves and our survival. But if you continue to feel a dull vibration, keep listening. The natural world has much wisdom to share, and will do whatever is necessary to make itself heard. We can choose to listen to the knowledge that spreads between humans and animals. Our very survival may depend on it.