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Healthy ecosystems, healthy humans: ‘One Health’ broadens its scope

  • At an Oct. 25 conference in Berlin, conservation and public health leaders issued 10 principles aimed at encouraging cross-disciplinary research and efforts to address both human health and environmental problems.
  • The principles, part of the One Health movement, grew out of the Manhattan Principles introduced in 2004.
  • The declaration acknowledges that the world’s poor often suffer the most as a result of environmental degradation.
  • However, the conference organizers point out that climate change has global reach and must be addressed from both the environmental and health perspectives.

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.

Bushmeat is a source of protein for many people around the world, many of whom are among the most vulnerable. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

At a conference in Berlin on Oct. 25, 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 introduced with the Manhattan Principles in 2004.

Since the Manhattan Principles, though, 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.

Intact ecosystems provide communities with fresh water, but forest clearance for oil palm, pictured here in Peru, can disrupt the provisioning of that resource. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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.”

Healthy forests provide many resources to vulnerable communities around the world. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But while vulnerable communities bear the brunt of the effects of environmental degradation, recent research — especially in the 15 years since the publication of the Manhattan Principles — has brought into focus the potentially devastating reach of climate change.

“I think the mainstream is now aware that actually climate change is an existential crisis to their own existence, their own prosperity,” Walston said.

But climate change is yet another threat to human health that could be solved, at least in part, by bolster a natural solution: Maintaining standing forests to siphon carbon from the atmosphere could help stave off droughts that could destroy our food supply or heat waves that threaten the sick and the elderly.

Walston said that the growing impact of climate change is further evidence that we shouldn’t be segregating environment from health.

“That shouldn’t be the way anymore,” Walston said. “We should be saying, what’s the contribution to climate change? What’s the contribution to health?”

Banner image of a Malaysian pied hornbill by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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