Farm animals and pandemics: nine diseases that changed the world

Covid has got experts thinking urgently about the risk of diseases passing from farmed animals to humans. We examine the major outbreaks of the past two centuries

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“Pandemics almost always begin with the transmission of an animal microbe to a human,” writes biologist Nathan Wolfe in the introduction to The Viral Storm. This year has been, more than most, a manifestation of that fact.

Several months after Covid-19 exploded into the world, the UN published a report examining zoonotic disease – diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans. Wildlife, and our increasing proximity to it, is the most common source. But farmed animals can also be original sources of disease, as well as bridging hosts, carrying the infection from the wild to humans.

Here we look at the major outbreaks that have been linked to farm animals over the past two centuries.

Contributors: Bibi van der Zee, Garry Blight, Eric Hilaire

Additional image credits: EPA, Wellcome Collection, REX/Shutterstock, Reuters, Alamy, AFP/Getty Images

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