August 28, 2014

Veg diet versus Ebola and other zoonotic diseases

By Hakeem Jimo

Wondering what ‘zoonotic disease’ means? If you think of zoo then you are pretty close. Yes: animals! More precisely, diseases we human can catch from animals. Zoonotic diseases are common and can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungus, parasites and other agents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Influenza, or flu, is one example of a zoonotic disease. You can blame the flu largely on ducks, though pigs and other birds can also host the virus. Animals make ideal hosts for these viruses and most do not get sick from the viruses they carry. But health officials worldwide worry every year that new, mutant strains of zoonotic diseases may cause a global pandemic, wiping out millions of people, like the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed between 50 and 100 million. The Great Plague had even wiped out as many as 200 million people in the 1300s carried by fleas. So the current outbreak of Ebola, as scary as it is, has not yet by far reached catastrophic numbers compared to other zoonotic diseases.

Now what has a Veg diet to do with that? At least two links: a direct and an indirect one. First the indirect link: My colleague, the Vanguard health editor, Sola Ogundipe and others published earlier this week an interesting quote by Derek Gatherer, a researcher of bio-informatics at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, who studies viral genetics and evolution: “If a person’s immune system can stand up to this initial attack — meaning their immune cells are not as depleted in the first stages of infection — then they are more likely to survive the disease (Ebola).”

How do we boost our immune system? We need to improve the function of our white blood cells which we achieve through beta-carotene not in pills but in the carrots, spinach, kale, and the likes. More about ‘Veg Diet and Boosting the Immune System’ in a later column. Studies of white blood cell samples from vegetarians have shown them to have more than double the malicious cell-destroying ability of their non-vegetarian counterparts.

Second, the direct link of a Veg diet to Ebola: The fashionable habit of eating exotic meats also has health agents concerned, as previously un-eaten or rare species can carry strains of bacteria and viruses that can be dangerous or lethal to humans.
The 2002 outbreak of the SARS virus may have derived from the consumption of wild civets – a nocturnal mammal native to Africa and Asia. Approximately 8,000 people were infected with SARS, possibly thanks to that culinary experiment, and 774 died.
Even conventional meat eating can go wrong, as in the case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a form of spongiform encephalopathy derived from cattle. The disease turns human brains into something akin to Swiss cheese. Large-scale breeding of livestock can cause rapid distribution of pathogens, spreading throughout animals due to crowding and exposure to blood and feces. Eventually, infected animals can infect us.

Avoiding this meat in the first place and following a vegetarian diet can eliminate a great deal of the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases.