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One Health: A system for understanding and coping with change

6 October 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A Green and Just Recovery. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The concept of One Health can not only help us understand the social, ecological, economic and medical reasons behind the significant changes in the Arctic, but address and adapt to them in ways that are culturally appropriate and sustainable. Arleigh Reynolds explains how.

The Arctic is experiencing environmental, social and economic change at a rate whose swift pace is without precedent. This poses great challenges—but it also offers great opportunities to use paradigm shifts to support adaptation and resilience in the face of change.

Such shifts might serve as a management model for similar changes that are occurring more gradually across the globe.

To address these issues effectively, we need an approach that integrates knowledge across disciplines and cultures and recognizes the interdependence of human, animal and environmental health. This concept—which has always been central to Indigenous worldviews— is now recognized in western science as One Health.

One Health was first developed as a means of understanding how zoonotic diseases—those caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans—arise. Some 65 to 70 per cent of emerging diseases in humans are of zoonotic origin, including the one that caused the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The impact we have on our environment—and how that influences human-animal interactions—plays a significant role in how these diseases develop and spread.

A holistic view of health

But health is more than the absence of disease. It can be defined as a state of well-being for individuals and their communities. Under this definition, health encompasses physical, mental, behavioural, cultural and spiritual health. Applying this approach to the One Health paradigm allows us to bring in expertise across natural and social sciences and synergize western science with traditional Indigenous ways of knowing. Such a broad and deep integration of knowledge and experience provides us with opportunities to understand complex issues like food safety, security and sovereignty at their roots, and engage stakeholders to build effective solutions.

The question is: how can One Health help us understand and prepare for—and even prevent—pandemics? The current COVID-19 pandemic is a glaring example of how the way we change our environments, the way we conduct agriculture and the way we interact with each other can influence the transfer of diseases from animals to people.

For example, when intensive agriculture encroaches upon wild habitat, it increases the frequency of contact between wild animals and those raised for food. Pathogens for which the wild animals are well adapted are new to the domestic animals, so they may cause more severe disease and transfer easily to the humans who work with or eat them. As we have seen, in our modern world, where intercontinental travel is fast, easy and relatively inexpensive, new diseases can spread quickly.

In this context, One Health offers us a way to understand the social, ecological, economic and medical reasons for the changes that are leading to such diseases and address them in culturally appropriate ways that lend themselves to sustainable solutions based on adaptation and resilience.

ARLEIGH REYNOLDS is a professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Center for One Health research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.