Biodiversity and human health: What’s a holistic approach to good health?

02 June 2020
Good health is not the mere absence of diseases. It is the result of a complex interplay between factors influencing our daily lives and the surrounding environment. However, increased human activities resulting in the loss of natural habitats imperil both healthy ecosystems and healthy humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines human health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, linking a person’s health status closely to social, economic, behavioral and environmental aspects. This holistic understanding of health is especially important during a global health crisis, such as the current coronavirus pandemic.

The “One Health” concept, links human, animal and environmental health. This approach adopts an all- encompassing understanding of health. It aims to develop and sustain collaboration across disciplines and knowledge systems to identify, prevent, and manage health risks in humans, animals and their shared environment.

This intrinsic connection was also emphasized by Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the Acting Executive Secretary of the CBD. In her statement published on the occasion of World Health Day on 7 April 2020, Ms Maruma Mrema points to the value of the One Health approach – especially in light of the current pandemic. While recognizing the needs for immediate, short-term action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, she urges: “the lessons learned from COVID-19 and other epidemics also point to the need for concerted action supported by a long-term vision; one that enables us to fundamentally transform our collective understanding of, and relationship with, the natural world, to prevent, insofar as possible, future pandemic outbreaks.”

“We humans have a complex relationship with our environment and all microorganisms, animals, and plants within our ecosystems. One Health builds upon these intricate connections and approaches health issues in a holistic manner, reflecting ecosystem linkages and interdependencies”, states Prof Arja Rautio from the University of Oulu, Finland, and member of the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group’s (SDWG) Arctic Human Health Expert Group.

One Arctic, One Health

SDWG has engaged with the One Health approach since 2015, when the United States and Canada introduced the One Health project to strengthen regional knowledge sharing and coordination regarding Arctic health concerns under the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2015-2017). Finland has since joined as a co-lead. The SDWG project is now is in its third Chairmanship cycle and it continues to foster knowledge sharing, conduct table top exercises, and facilitate collaborative investigations of One Health phenomena such as disease outbreaks and natural disasters. Circumpolar table top exercises convened in 2017 and 2018 identified key gap areas and collaborative opportunities related to disease outbreaks in marine mammals, land animals used for subsistence, wildfires, and the grounding of a large ship.

“Rapid social and environmental change in the Arctic, including climate change, affect the health and well-being of millions of humans and animals that live in the Arctic. If we want to manage these risks effectively, we need to look at the ecosystem as a whole – for a healthy environment, healthy humans and healthy animals”, says Prof Arja Rautio.

An inclusive approach to good health

An important aspect of One Health is that the long-term vision is shared across communities and knowledge systems, taking traditional knowledge and local knowledge into account. “The Indigenous Peoples of the circumpolar region possess an immense understanding of their environments and ecosystems based on millennia of living close to nature and practicing subsistence. Their knowledge and observations are critical for recognizing, characterizing, and addressing real change”, says Prof Arja Rautio.

In their 2019 recommendations, SDWG’s One Health experts therefore urged the eight Arctic States that “the Arctic Council and SDWG should continue to play a valuable role by forming a platform for knowledge sharing, simulated exercises, and collaborative investigations of One Health phenomena, and by creating avenues for the inclusion of traditional knowledge and local knowledge as a key aspect of One Health understanding and practice in the Arctic region.”

Traditional and local knowledge holders contribute to operationalizing One Health in multiple ways. They ensure that assessments and findings are reliable and consistent by differentiating between occasional and random events as opposed to lasting change. Consequently, they contribute to the discussion about emerging threats and more comprehensive One Health risk-assessments and risk-management processes. This leads in turn to a more holistic analysis of the link, for example, between climate change and its impacts on the lives of local communities, animal populations, and ecosystems – aspects that can feed into and strengthen scientific research. Finally, traditional and local knowledge holders enhance community acceptability and evaluate how measures match with a given context, therefore supporting more effective prevention, mitigation and resilience.

The inclusion of local communities and Indigenous peoples is especially important to understand health effects related to biodiversity loss. A degraded environment can disrupt livelihoods and traditions and severely impact the most vulnerable groups of society.

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