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Talk of the Month

Zoonoses, as defined by the World Health organization, are “Diseases and infections that transmitted naturally between vertebrate animals and man”. Although the term “zoonosis” was coined by German physician Rudolf Virchow only 156 years ago, the concept had been in existence in Buddhist texts for at least 2000 years ago.

Although the Buddhist teachings are mainly directed towards the total liberation of human beings, until such achievement the Buddha had advised his disciples and lay people about the importance of having a sound health which is considered the best gain. Some of the Suttas and stanzas in Pali canon are extremely conducive to this concept when followed as instructed or chanted appropriately.

There is an interesting link of modern epidemiology to early Buddhist writings. Five areas have been selected in order to explain this concept:

1. KhandaSutta makes mention of many animals which can harm humans with a special reference to several domestic animals including the rat (Mūsika).

2. Paccavekkhana in MajjhimaNikāya mentions wearing robes gives protection from adverse climatic conditions as well as gadflies, mosquitoes, etc. These insects play a major role in transmitting zoonotic diseases.

3. RatanaSutta describes a plague (a zoonotic disease) which had been in epidemic proportion in the city of Vesali which was afflicted with pestilence and famine.

4. As a commentary to one “Dhammapada stanza” a story (Kumbhaghosaka story) has been written with regard to a plague like disease which is transmitted to humans and animals by rats. This condition is referred to as “Ahivāthaka”.

5. “AnavumPirita” is most probably a set of non-canonical hymns which gives a list of animals and other hazards that could be sources of fear, diseases and peril (nānābhayatōva, nānārōgatōvanānāupaddavatōva).

When these hazards are categorized in to these three groups one group will have animals which cause diseases to humans, vis-à-vis zoonosis. These animals are Assa (horse), miga(deer), gōna(cattle),kukkura(dog), sūkara(pig), mahīsa(Buffalo).

Globally, the most important zoonoses as well as a majority of emerging diseases are caused by animals which are mentioned here. Leptospirosis, Hanta Virus Fever, Hendra Virus Fever, Rift Valley Fever, African Horse Sickness, Western Equine Encephalomyelitis, West Nile Virus Fever, Tuberculosis, Anthrax, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, Rabies, Alveolar Echinococcosis, Nipah Virus Fever, Trichinosis, Swine Influenza are among them.

It has been documented that 75% of all emerging diseases that have affected people over past two decades were zoonoses. Though the technological advances facilitate more diagnosis of diseases, many factors such as expansion of human population, international trade and travel, climatic changes, environmental changes and intensive livestock production systems contribute to higher occurrence of zoonoses at present. These diseases had also played a significant role in the past too as mentioned in Buddhist text.
Dr Janith Gunasekera

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