While the world is still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanzania in East Africa is working to stem the spread of a mysterious disease that has so far killed three people and infected several more.
The disease identified as leptospirosis or a hemorrhagic infection that leads to nosebleeds is believed to have been transmitted from wild animals – and thus another zoonotic disease in humans after COVID-19 in recent times.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Health Minister Amy Mwalimu said the nosebleed disease caused by a bacterium known as Leptospira introgans has been transmitted to humans from rodents, dogs, antelopes and wild birds.
“Environmental destruction has led to a close interaction between wild animals and people,” she said.
Aifilu Seshalwe, Tanzania’s chief medical officer, said a team of medical experts is working in the southeastern district of Lindi to identify the disease that has killed three people and infected 20, one of whom is still hospitalized.
Cecilia Mville, a virologist at Kibungoto Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Kilimanjaro, said zoonotic pathogens are increasingly being transmitted from animals to humans due to the changing environment.
“It is important to understand the interaction between different species and how they lead to the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Many animal species including rodents can harbor pathogens without themselves being affected,” she said.
Wild animals that migrate or have large areas, including antelopes, also make effective vectors, Mville said.
“I’ve never seen such a strange disease, I felt dizzy and my nose was bleeding permanently when I lost consciousness,” said Rashid Kassem, a resident of Lindi with a strange disease.
Increased risk of disease outbreak
The World Health Organization warned last week that the African continent faced an increased risk of outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, including the monkeypox virus that originated in animals and then mutated species and infected humans.
According to a WHO analysis, there has been a 63% increase in the number of zoonoses outbreaks in the region in the past decade.
The United Nations health body recorded 1,843 public health risks between 2001 and 2022, 30% of which were zoonotic outbreaks.
Infections that originate in animals and then move to humans have been occurring for centuries, said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, but the risk of mass infection and death has been relatively limited in Africa.
She said the growing demand for food, rapid urbanization, and encroachment on wildlife reserves were some of the causes of the outbreak.
Tanzanian President Samia Solo Hassan has warned that the hemorrhagic infection, whose symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and persistent nosebleeds, is caused by human interaction with wildlife since people built settlements near forests.
She said the wild animals were disrupted from their natural habitats and forced to move closer to human settlements.
There is a strong link between destruction of animals’ natural habitats and increased human-vector contact that leads to an increase in zoonoses, said Mary Nyaloo, Kilimanjaro District Chief Veterinary Epidemiologist.
“Changes in environmental conditions have caused animals such as antelopes to flee their natural habitats and feed on agricultural products,” she said.
Being close to humans and wildlife is dangerous
Nyalu said the increased proximity between humans and wildlife has led to the rate of transmission of diseases including nosebleeds.
According to him, the spread of wildlife is caused by the change of land use including the destruction of forests for energy and construction activities.
“When humans encroach on wildlife habitats, chances of direct contact with infected species that can transmit deadly pathogens increase,” Nyalu said.
Scientists have said that zoonoses are a widespread, complex and multifaceted phenomenon that does not distinguish between borders, and does not always inherently distinguish between hosts.
Humans have created conditions for these pathogens to thrive, and rapid human expansion will lead to the emergence of new diseases.
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