The Importance of One Health

The world’s most impoverished communities don’t need to be told that intact ecosystems are vital to their health. Healthy ecosystems = healthy humans! This inter-connectivity needs to be moved up the agenda and the good news is that this is now starting to happen.

The idea that the health of the planet and health of people are inextricably linked is not a new one, but this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, brought about by zoonotic disease, threw that connection into stark relief. As more people began to connect the dots between environmental destruction, agriculture, livestock, wildlife trade and human disease, the “One Health” approach came into vogue - and was supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


The world’s most impoverished communities don’t need to be told that intact ecosystems are vital to their health, says Joseph Walston, vice president for field conservation programs with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They get it.


When, for example, bushmeat hunting surges in an area to sate the demand for exotic foods in a far-off city, they comprehend very well that they’re losing a critical source of nutrients and protein.


“If you’re going to work in [places like] Central Africa, the idea that you can split off issues around health and environment from each other - it has it has just never made any sort of sense,” Walston said. That’s led WCS to include health components as a standard part of its programming, he added, “even though we are the Wildlife Conservation Society.”


But getting that message across to consumers in wealthier countries, who are better insulated from the immediate health risks of ecosystem degradation, as well as key decision-makers, isn’t as straightforward. That’s why WCS and other conservationists, scientists and policymakers are calling for better integration between the environment and health sectors to deal with the challenges we face.


At a conference in Berlin last October, they issued 10 principles aimed at guiding this sort of meaningful collaboration. The Berlin Principles aim to broaden the scope of “One Health,” a term that acknowledges the interdependence of environmental and public health issues.


A lot of environmental health research has zeroed in on topics such as infectious disease and resistance to antibiotics - critical issues, says Cristián Samper, president and CEO of WCS, but the interdependence between the environment and human health in reality goes much deeper.


“What we’re trying to do is … look at the different dimensions of good human health and tie it back to the issues of the state of ecosystems and biodiversity,” Samper said in an interview.

Those ecosystems provide a host of services that benefit human health. But as these services fade with the destruction of ecosystems, One Health proponents contend, we’ll see a rise in waterborne disease because the forest no longer serves as a filter for a watershed, for example, or more cases of diseases like Ebola or malaria spilling over from other animals in fragmented rainforests.


Samper said that one of the primary goals of the Berlin Principles is to increase the interdisciplinary aspects of research and other projects, rather than just focusing on solely the conservation or the health side of an issue.


“When you submit a One Health proposal, the health people say, well, what’s this thing about wildlife in there? When you submit it to biodiversity conservationists, they say, why do you have the human health issue?” he said. “We need to really break down those silos.”


One of the ways One Health proponents are hoping to do that is by demonstrating to key decision-makers the important role that, say, biodiversity plays for local communities. The minister of foreign affairs for Germany, which co-hosted the Berlin conference with WCS, attended, and Samper said there were signs that the German government wants to take One Health principles to the G20, a group of the 19 wealthy and developing countries plus the European Union.


“We’ll keep working on the ground, but we wanted to raise the issue to a higher policy level,” Samper said. “I don’t think these issues have ever had a voice or been discussed at that level.”

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2020: Good News for the Planet - A summary of the most important and positive news about climate change this year. As we all know, there's been a radical collapse in carbon emissions this year but for all the wrong reasons. However, behind our self-imposed lockdown - and the resulting closure of factories and the curtailment of travel - the world seems to have genuinely turned 'the climate corner.'