Understanding Risk in Human–animal Interactions

By Owczarczak-Garstecka, Sara | Forced Migration Review, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Understanding Risk in Human–animal Interactions


Owczarczak-Garstecka, Sara, Forced Migration Review


Animals in refugee camps can improve people's health and well-being. They are a source of food and a commodity which can be sold or exchanged or kept as an investment. Animals can also be a source of psychological comfort,1 can potentially help refugees to preserve cultural identity and can serve as a marker of normal life. For example, Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan are prepared to spend a substantial part of their monthly income on a singing bird because such a bird - in Syrian culture - is what turns a house into a home. However, close proximity of animals and humans can be a source of risk, and understanding of the risks posed by animals within refugee camps is generally poor.

A public health model published in 1991 by Dahlgren and Whitehead offers one approach to mapping the potential sources of hazards associated with animals in refugee camps.2 The model shows how health inequities are shaped by a combination of cultural, political, environmental and social factors as well as by individuals' attributes. These factors influence both the risks to an individual who is in contact with animals and also how they experience an illness and their ability to access the resources needed for recovery.

Political/organisational environment: At the widest level in this scenario is the international and national political climate - the wars and fighting that dictate the global movement of people and their animals (including who is displaced and where the camps are built) - and the policies of the organisations that run and support camps. All these aspects will have an impact on human and animal health, and the effectiveness of the management of humananimal interactions will depend on which agencies are on the ground and the degree of expertise that they have in this area. For example, vaccination alone may not suffice in entirely preventing outbreaks of diseases within herds (as the success of a vaccination programme depends also on aspects such as the coverage and timing of the vaccination programme) but it can reduce risk.

Physical environment: The environment through which people travel and the setting of the camp itself can contribute to the burden of risk. For instance, Afghan refugee camps established in early 1990 on the western boarder of Pakistan were situated on marginal waterlogged terrain, which encourages malaria. As Afghanistan had run a successful malaria control programme prior to the Soviet-Afghan war, the refugees arriving in Pakistan had no immunity to the disease. Families who arrived with animals, and camps with more livestock, experienced greater prevalence of malaria as the livestock provided mosquitos with an easy source of blood, which boosted the mosquito population.3 More broadly speaking, animals that flee with their owners may be exposed to new diseases to which they have no immunity or may themselves carry diseases to which local animal populations are susceptible.

The built environment can also have an impact on the level of risk in human-animal interactions. The presence of animals is seldom factored into the design of refugee camps. In Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, for example, people developed their own ways of keeping poultry, often by transforming human accommodation. Lack of suitable, designated spaces for animals may result in poor sanitation, increasing the risk of diseases to the animal population and transmission of certain diseases to people.

Social environment: Social factors shape a person's exposure to risk. For example, culture, tradition and religion influence how animals are killed and by whom, and how their meat is prepared and consumed. This in turn could alter the risk of a range of infectious diseases and the risk of physical injury linked to handling animals. …

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