Five-Year Study Concludes Overdevelopment Causes Disease Outbreaks Costing $21 Million Each Year in Malaysia

NEW YORK – September 30, 2019 – Five years of study by EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit working at the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health on a global scale, conclude that current rates of land conversion in Malaysian Borneo far exceed optimal rates, resulting in dramatic increases in rates of diseases like malaria and leading to major economic losses.

In Malaysian Borneo, more than 5,400 square miles of forest are cut down each year, mainly for palm oil cultivation and growing agricultural demands. In previous work, EcoHealth Alliance has shown that this process is linked to disease emergence globally, with almost one-third of emerging diseases related to some form of land-use change. The key goal of this 5-year USAID-funded Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes (IDEEAL) project was to analyze links between land conversion and disease emergence and calculate their economic costs. EcoHealth Alliance scientists developed a tool for industry stakeholders and government officials to determine ideal rates for land-use conversion and development, maximizing profits, but also incorporating the costs of disease emergence and the loss of ecosystem services that forests provide, including protecting against climate change, and conserving biodiversity.

"The economic benefit of palm oil cultivation is quite obvious, but the economic toll of doing so without regard for conservation and health is often more difficult to demonstrate," EcoHealth Alliance President and IDEEAL Chief of Party Dr. Peter Daszak said. "What we have done here is create a tool which can do exactly that. Relatively simple measures like preventing forest fragmentation can be the difference between economic growth and facilitating the next pandemic."

Drone footage shows the extent of deforestation in Malaysian Sabah (Photo: EcoHealth Alliance)

The IDEEAL project also facilitated the founding of the Development and Health Research Unit at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah which functions as a center for research and education about the connection between human health, land-use change, and economics.

The rainforest of Borneo is one of the world’s oldest. It is home to many endangered species, including Bornean elephant and the Bornean orangutan. "One of the many things that makes Borneo special is its biodiversity," IDEEAL Deputy Chief of Party Tom Hughes said. "By protecting the space in which these unique animals live, we’re not only protecting them, but in limiting our contact with them, we’re potentially preventing the spread of any viruses we may share."

To demonstrate the importance of forest preservation, EcoHealth Alliance scientists developed an algorithm to calculate its financial value, based on the social cost of its loss. Should deforestation continue at current rates, net present value loss between 2015 and 2030 will exceed $4.3 trillion throughout Southeast Asia.

About EcoHealth Alliance:
Building on 45 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is the premier nonprofit organization committed to a One Health approach to track the migration of deadly viruses from animals into humans. EcoHealth Alliance research has led to major breakthroughs on the origins and spread of new and emerging diseases like Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Nipah virus. EcoHealth Alliance works globally in hotspot regions where the threat of outbreaks is highest. Through innovations in research, training, capacity building, and policy initiatives, we develop tools and interventions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation.
Press contact: Robert Kessler, (646) 868-4711 or kessler@ecohealthalliance.org.

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