4 questions about One Health

The current pandemic has demonstrated overwhelmingly that human health is inseparable from our living environment. This is why the “One Health” approach is gaining in importance. But what exactly does that mean?

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Food Control in Livestock

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What is One Health?

The One Health concept holds that human health is inextricably intertwined with the health of animals and of living environments or ecosystems. It transpires that 60% of pathogens in humans originate from animals, both wild and domesticated. These, then, cause “zoönoses” – infectious diseases of animal origin. Consider AIDS, SARS, Ebola, rabies, etc. COVID-19 too – the disease caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus – is a zoonosis.

But in principle, One Health takes a longer view than merely zoönoses. It also takes account of the benefits of nature for human health, such as the beneficial effect of greenery on urban residents. It also investigates antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Due to excessive use of antibiotics - in humans, but especially in animal husbandry - some bacteria have become resistant and therefore difficult to treat and dangerous.

In short, One Health is a holistic lens that views the health of human beings as an interplay between all their potential interactions with their living environment. By studying the influence of these interactions, One Health strives towards optimum health for humans, animals and their surroundings.

It goes without saying that this is a highly complex subject matter that can only be approached in a “transdisciplinary” manner. Doctors, health workers, vets, agronomists, virologists, microbiologists, ecologists, nature conservationists, anthropologists ... as well as policy-makers, all need to work together to be able to gain an insight into the complex interplay between humans and their living environment.

There are various approaches to the definition of One Health. Some approaches largely warn against the dangers from nature. They mainly focus on the development of vaccines, aiming to exterminate “dangerous” animal species (such as mosquitoes) and limit the free movement of animals. This approach could in part be described as “reactive”: tracking down and/or suppressing dangers.

A different approach prefers to view animals or nature as the victims of human behaviour. After all, more structural factors such as the international trade in exotic animals, climate change, densely populated cities, frequent travel, hunting wild animals (“bushmeat”), intensive cattle breeding, fragmentation of natural landscapes and so on do give rise to an unhealthy interaction between humans and animals. This approach, then, aims to rebalance the interaction between humans and animals/nature. It focuses more on prevention.

How did the concept come about?

The concept first arose in the early 2000s. In 2010, it gained traction on the international agenda during a consultation between the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Indeed, the realisation was growing that human health was dependent on the quality of the living environment (also known as environmental health). When the UN Convention on Biological Diversity embraced the concept as well, One Health immediately gained “UN status”.

What is Belgium doing?

The FPS Public Health has adopted One Health as the guiding principle for its work. One Health is also the major article of faith for the Belgian research institute for health, Sciensano. In this, it purposefully chooses as broad an interpretation as possible, i.e. including as many environmental aspects as possible.

In addition, the concept is seeing gradual adoption at research institutes like the Institute of Tropical Medicine (in its research but also in its Master in Tropical Animal Health), the chair for Care & Natural Living Environment at the University of Antwerp and the Master One Health from the University of Liège. Other organisations are also beginning to show an interest in One Health, such as in the sectors nature, sciences and health, as well as among the authorities.

The Belgian biodiversity platform – which supports Belgian efforts around biodiversity with assistance from BELSPO – has also embraced One Health, including through its work around Biodiversity & Health. Since 2011, it has been initiating and facilitating activities around biodiversity & health. In November 2019, it was among those taking the initiative to establish the Belgian One Health network.

The Belgian Development Co-operation integrated the concept into its memorandum on the socio-economic consequences of COVID-19.

Couple walking in forest

A walk in a forest can be tremendously healing, but you can also come into contact with potential disease carriers such as ticks. © iStock

Can One Health prevent a new pandemic?

Not immediately. But regardless, it is essential that human health is not viewed separately from that of our living environment. However, this subject matter is highly complex and will demand a great deal more research. Nor is there any obvious way to snap our fingers and reverse certain factors in human behaviour, as mentioned above: urbanisation, the international animal trade, fragmentation of landscapes, etc.

There are no easy solutions. This means for instance that One Health cannot be equated to “providing more nature”. The “renaturing” of cities, for example, is of the utmost importance, even if only to combat the “heat island effect”, and to allow more water to seep into the soil. A survey by the chair for Care & Natural Living Environment revealed that people had real need of greenery during the recent lockdown: their health and state of mind are all the better for it. On the other hand, one can also come up against potential disease vectors in this nature, such as ticks, which can pass on Lyme disease. It therefore comes down to taking an as sensible relation as possible with animals and nature in general.

One Health will not be able to prevent new pandemics immediately, then, as it is still in its infancy. But this holistic view of health will teach us a great deal more, arming us better against new diseases. In fact, One Health is of vital importance for rising to the health issues facing the 21st century. Research, practice and policy must come together here. Only this way can the new insights also lead to the necessary policy measures and behavioural adjustments.

With thanks to Hans Keune, Biodiversity & Health expert at the Belgian biodiversity platform and co-ordinator of the Belgian One Health network, for the input.