“I am a medical oddity — I’m a doctor who specializes in saving forests.”
So begins a new TED talk by Dr. Neil Vora, an epidemiologist at Conservation International.
While it may seem unusual for a medical doctor to work for a conservation nonprofit, Vora’s work centers on a powerful premise: that human health and the protection of nature are inextricably linked. This idea has not received much attention — but Vora hopes the popularity and influence of TED talks might change that.
“My main message is that our health cannot be separated from the health of the planet,” said Vora, who has devoted his career to chasing infectious diseases — from Ebola-stricken villages in West Africa to New York City, where he led a COVID-19 contact tracing program with more than 3,000 staff during the pandemic.
“I wanted to do this TED talk to help people see how our health as humans is connected to the health of animals and nature more broadly,” he told Conservation News. “People need nature to survive, and with everything we do to protect nature, we are also protecting ourselves.”
Most newly emerging infectious diseases originate from animals. And changes in the way land is used, particularly from deforestation, play a major role in transmitting them to people, research shows. As the global commercial wildlife trade persists and humans continue to encroach deeper into forests, there are more opportunities for pathogens to spread from animals to humans — a process known as “zoonotic spillover.”
“Some researchers believe the West African Ebola epidemic began with an axe,” Vora says in his TED talk, released on Tuesday. “Communities in rural Guinea, for their survival, had no choice but to clear forests for farms. Then, in 2013, an 18-month-old boy died of Ebola. He’s believed to have caught the virus from bats that lived in a hollow tree where he played. Put another way, the virus likely spilled over from bats to the boy, making him ‘patient zero.'"
“Ebola’s animal origins, however, aren’t unique,” Vora continues. “All five viral pandemics from 1918 through 2009 can be traced to animals — and the same is likely true for COVID.”
If humans continue to degrade nature, the probability of pandemics is expected to increase in the coming decades, research shows. Moreover, the threat of infectious disease is growing as the planet warms. Climate change is shifting where diseases show up. For example, the Zika, dengue and West Nile viruses, which were previously confined to tropical climates, are projected to increasingly affect communities that have never experienced them.
“There is something we can do right now that would have an immediate impact on health and climate. What’s more, it will cost way less than fighting the next pandemic,” Vora says. “So, what is this solution? Protecting tropical forests.”
Since joining Conservation International as a pandemic prevention fellow in 2021, Vora has begun to put this issue squarely on policymakers’ radars — advocating for increased funding and strategies that focus on protecting nature to prevent outbreaks.
“There is no human health, or animal health, or environmental health;” Vora says, concluding his TED talk. “They are one and the same.”
- Protect nature or risk future pandemics, expert warns
- ‘The Last of Us,’ a warning for future pandemics