Frontiers: Global capital & disease hot spots


Our world is more connected than ever. It’s now easy to live in the United States, buy airfare to Europe, send money to Africa and eat food from Asia. And while this global connectivity comes with a slew of benefits, it also opens the door to the spread of disease and potential for worldwide epidemics.

Portrait: Robert WallaceRobert Wallace, visiting scholar with the Institute for Global Studies, discussed the need to rethink how we define “disease hot spots” from locations where outbreaks originate to global centers of capital that drive disease-causing practices in his Frontiers in the Environment lecture on April 16.

In his talk “Global Capital and Disease Hot Spots,” Wallace presented the concept of One Health, a new public health approach focusing on the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

“The standard One Health approach integrates investigations of wildlife, livestock, and human health in an ecological context,” he said. “The approach convenes medical doctors, veterinarians, and wildlife biologists under the rubric [that] many species at a locale share infectious, chronic and environmental illnesses. The approach is not without precedence. Historically, multiple efforts have been made to connect human and animal health, but the renewed interest appears in part driven by practical matters as by theoretical developments.”

A major driving force of disease is consolidation in the agricultural sector. Livestock farms have grown larger and more confined, making it easy for disease to spread rapidly.

“Profound shifts in stock breeding over the past three decades appear to have selected for new swine and avian influenza which now serve as a growing reservoir of potentially pandemic strains,” Wallace said.

But pointing fingers at a single operation in one part of the world is not sufficient, according to Wallace. Instead, he argues that centers of global capital–places like New York, London, or Hong Kong–along with multinational corporations are funding the agribusiness practices that propagate disease in the first place.

Swine flu (H1N1), one of the most recent and highly-publicized disease outbreaks, provides evidence that large, globally-connected companies may be responsible.

“Every one of H1N1’s genetic segments proved most closely related to influenza circulating among swine together originating on wholly different continents, and that’s a geographic extent in commodity chain no smallholder operation can cover,” he said. “Only internationally connected companies can pull that off.”

So how can epidemiologists and public health officials use this information to get ahead of new disease outbreaks? The first step is to revisit the One Health approach by looking beyond simply where an outbreak originates and taking into account the factors causing it.

“In an era marking the end of capitalism’s cheap ecology–the end of cheap energy, cheap labor, cheap raw materials and cheap food–a One Health able to actually control new epizootics from the ground up must account for the structural crises underlying the deforestation, development and dispossession driving new disease,” Wallace said.

Watch Wallace’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.
Photo by thornypup (Flickr Creative Commons)