One health approach to wet markets

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Alexandra Lourenço, a 1st-year medical student from the University of Beira Interior in Portugal. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

In the past months, wet markets have been receiving more and more attention due to the Covid-19 pandemic, since the earliest cases trace back to one of these sites.

Wet markets, found throughout Asia and Africa, usually sell vegetables and fruit, along with perishable products, like seafood, fish and meat. In fact, they receive their name because the floors are typically wet with fish splashing in tubs of water and the melting of ice to keep food conserved.

Are they dangerous?

The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where live animals are slaughtered and sold for human consumption.

In the recent past, several other diseases, including Ebola and SARS, had their origins in close contact between animals and humans, causing deadly outbreaks.

All these cases share the existence of markets of (mostly unregulated) wild animals, kept cramped in stacked cages in close proximity to human beings. The viruses would have then easily spread to food handlers or customers through contact bodily fluids.

It is important to note, however, that there are different types of wet markets: some sell no live animals; some sell live animals like chicken or fish; and some sell wild animals like bats and pangolins.

The danger is especially high with wildlife: we never encountered their pathogens before, so we haven’t had the chance to develop immunity.

So… Should we close them?

Since these markets constitute a safe and affordable source of food, their complete shutdown would threaten the food security of millions of low-income people, who don’t have access to supermarkets.

Furthermore, a widespread shuttering of all wet markets could stimulate an unregulated black market for animal products, making it even more dangerous, because we wouldn’t know its origins nor where it was happening.

So, instead of shutting them down, we should focus on improving their sanitary practices and food safety.

How can we use One Health to make them safe?

It is now clear that separating health and environmental policies is a dangerous strategy. If we learned anything with Covid-19, it’s that our health depends on the health of other species (and, ultimately, on the environment itself).

Under this One Health perspective, the first step to make wet markets safer would be to ensure the health of the animals, with the help of veterinarians and their teams.

At the same time, policymakers would legislate and control the trade of animals for human consumption, as well as improve the markets’ infrastructures.

In the long term, it is also important to educate both clients and producers about the dangers of wildlife consumption (both legal and illegal) and the negative impact it has on our health and on endangered species.

Therefore, the Covid-19 crisis should be seen as an unprecedented opportunity to fight illegal animal trade and to strengthen food safety in all wet markets, avoiding future outbreaks and helping sustain both public health and economic growth. If this happens, only time will tell.

About the author

Alexandra Lourenço is a 1st-year medical student from the University of Beira Interior in Portugal. She is particularly interested in neuroscience and epidemiology. She is also passionate about technology and how it will revolutionize the future of healthcare.

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