One Health approach will avert future pandemics

Considers interdependence among human, animal and environmental well-being.

In Summary
  • The Covid-19 pandemic presents a teachable moment.
  • In the epoch of mass extinction, our health and economic security are inextricably bound to the health of our planet.
Flamingoes fly over Lake Naivasha.
Flamingoes fly over Lake Naivasha.
Image: FILE

Nearly one year after the first cluster of Covid-19 cases was identified in China’s Wuhan city, coronavirus rages on. Nearly 60 million people have been infected and about 1.4 million have died.

There is no doubt in my mind that save for countries such as Australia, China, Singapore and South Korea, global and national response to the pandemic has been a woeful failure. The canons that undergird community and public health have been ignored owing to a combination of state and political incompetence and catastrophic failure of global collective governance mechanisms.

Bats, the prime suspects, are thought to host thousands of yet-unknown coronaviruses. It is highly improbable that this is the last infectious disease pandemic. There will be more, and perhaps more virulent virus infections, because rapid changes in land use and decimation of wildlife and their habitats, contact with wildlife is increasing, exacerbating the risk of zoonotic diseases. The simian (ape, monkey) history of HIV, although not linked to AIDS, is instructive. However, the zoonotic origins of the Ebola virus is conclusive.

Currently, seven coronaviruses are known to cause mild to fatal illness in humans. SARS-Cov-2, which causes Covid-19, being the most recent addition to the list. If our long and collective experience with other coronaviruses such as the flu is anything to go by, we must be persuaded not to put too much faith in a silver-bullet proposition like a vaccine. Viruses mutate rapidly in what is the oldest arms race. We know that the flu viruses change from year to year, hence the need for a flu shot every year.

The global collective capacity for timely, robust and sustained response to pandemics is pathetic. Vaccines and therapeutics are not the solution. The solution lies in a One Health approach, which considers the critical interdependence among human, animal and environmental well-being. Studies have shown that humans and domestic animals are likely to interact with wildlife when more than a quarter of wild or natural habitat is lost. Such interactions exacerbate the risk of disease transmission.

While we work frantically to manage human health through a pill or a vaccine vial, we must understand that the only long-term guarantee to global health security lies in restoring our relationship with nature. We must adopt the One Health approach where the health of humans, animals and plants are protected by maintaining the integrity of our ecosystems, their diversity, services, and the delicate evolutionary balance of all life forms.

Moreover, education and training in human medicine, veterinary medicine, biology and environmental sciences must cast aside unhelpful wrong-headed disciplinary barriers and embrace integrated, holistic training approaches that foreground the delicate, inescapable interdependence between humans, animals and the environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents a teachable moment. In the epoch of mass extinction, our health and economic security are inextricably bound to the health of our planet. I believe that a One Health approach to education, public policy and global governance will enable better preparedness for future pandemics, enhancing our capacity to predict location and possible agent.