One Health: Time for Action

By Professor Wanda Markotter, Director: Centre for Viral Zoonoses and Future Africa Research Chair: People, Health and Places (One Health)

The COVID-19 pandemic may be an uncomfortable memory for many, but a global health emergency of such proportions could happen again due to the spillover of pathogens from animals to humans. This possibility is increased by several drivers related to human impacts, such as intensified farming (wildlife and domestic), deforestation and climate change. 
One Health (OH) is an integrative and systemic approach to health, based on the understanding that human, animal and ecosystem health are inextricably linked. 

“If we do not implement a holistic, collective approach that is proactive rather than reactive, we will continue seeing deadly outbreaks and even more devastation,” says Professor Wanda Markotter, Research Chair: People, Health and Places (One Health) at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa Institute.

UP is at the forefront of research in applying an OH approach, and plays a leading role in global and national OH policy discussions. 

The building blocks of effective OH approaches start with including all relevant stakeholders, such as the government, private sector, NGOs, multilateral and bilateral agencies, academia and dedicated leadership. The One Health definition also emphasises that communities and all levels of society are important. 

“Communities are vulnerable to disease outbreaks and pressures from the environment, including food insecurity, lack of energy and access to clean water, and air climate extreme events,” says Prof Markotter. “Apart from these, many communities also face socio-economic challenges in education, as well as unemployment among youth and women.”

She recognises the importance of engaging communities in ways that benefit people on the ground while addressing OH challenges. This can be achieved through bridging the gap between research and communities through communication, education and understanding pressing issues that affect people.

One such success was an animal health introductory workshop for farmers in the village of Ga Mampa in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Recognising the high prevalence of tick-borne diseases in livestock, which can pose risks to human health, a collaboration with the Animal Health Directorate of the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development brought together key stakeholders, including rural farmers and local state veterinary technicians.

Besides addressing topics such as early disease identification and sustainable animal production to prevent disease, the workshop also included a practical demonstration session on temperature reading, tick inspection and proper injection techniques using a live goat. Additionally, farmers received educational pamphlets written in Sepedi, the local language in Ga Mampa, which provided step-by-step guidance on conducting daily health inspections, accurately recording vital information and recognising signs of diseases. 

Another highlight was a World Rabies Month event held in the Ga Mampa community on pet health and welfare, and rabies awareness and vaccination. During the event, community members shared their experiences about their pets at home and came to understand the need to vaccinate them, given the high level of interactions that dogs can have with wild animals in rural areas. 

Creating awareness and capacity in One Health in communities is an ongoing process, requiring time, investment and dedicated individuals. 

15 million ~Lives lost since 2003 due to disease and pandemics 

24%~Percentage of deaths from exposure to unhealthy environmental risk factors

28%~Percentage of children under five who die from risks associated with air pollution, water contamination and exposure to hazardous compounds

(WHO:2018)

 

“We must apply the same principles to prevent pandemics,” advises Prof Markotter, who also co-chairs the global One Health High-level Expert Panel (OHHLEP), established in May 2021 to provide advice on One Health issues to the United Nations Food and Agriculture  Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the United Nations Environment Programme. 

“Implementation is key, as demonstrated by the four Cs: communication, coordination, collaboration and capacity building,” she adds. “It is based on several fundamental principles, including equity, inclusivity, equal access, parity, socioecological equilibrium, stewardship and transdisciplinary research.”

Why this Research Matters: Implementation of the One Health approach is growing; it is also being used as an approach to address research questions and policy discussions. It must change people’s lives and create a healthier ecosystem for all, addressing several other concerns like biodiversity loss, climate change, food insecurity and social inequalities. There are advantages to using this approach: to prevent future pandemics and to promote the overall improvement of health for all as well as sustainable economic stability and resilience.

This article first appeared on page 22 in issue 8 of RE.SEARCH magazine published by the University of Pretoria.