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Veterinary and medical professionals call for a One Health approach to improve human pandemic infection control

COVID-19 has brought into painfully stark focus how vulnerable global society is to emerging diseases

09 October 2020, at 9:00am

At a time when the world’s biodiversity is facing both a mass extinction event and an increase in emerging infections, a group of leading veterinary and medical professionals have spoken out about the need for professionals in human, animal and environmental health to function within broader multidisciplinary teams in order to mitigate against human pandemics and help the health of the globe.

Published in The BMJ, the group has outlined how the COVID-19 pandemic must serve as a wake-up call, with greater recognition of the critical interdependence between the health of humans and that of animals and the environment, as emphasised by the 2015-30 Sustainable Development Goals.

The “One Health” approach recognises the relationship between health and disease at the interfaces between humans, animals and the environment, and has become an important focus in both medical and veterinary science. It promotes a “whole of society” treatment of health hazards and a systemic change of perspective in the management of risk.

The COVID-19 pandemic had its origins in the natural world, most likely through transmission from bats. There must be wider recognition that the risk of pandemics is increased through a continued failure to respect the ecological boundaries and habitats of wildlife and an inability to prevent the current accelerating environmental destruction and incursions into wilderness habitats to seek resources - wood, minerals, or clearance for crops and livestock. Recent research shows that the cost of preventing further pandemics over the next decade by protecting wildlife and forests equates to just two percent of the estimated financial damage caused by COVID-19.

The group is calling for education and training in human and veterinary medicine to more effectively embrace the concept of preventative eco-health, whereby the health of all animals (including humans) is protected through preservation of the integrity of the natural world, its services, diversity, and natural ecological barriers. More effective collaboration in research and practice between medical and veterinary practitioners is needed, in partnership with biologists and environmentalists. Education must therefore, equip practitioners to function effectively in this new environment, and the One Health concept must be at the foundation of this integrated approach.

Dr Camilla Benfield, Senior Lecturer in Virology at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and Course Director for the MSc One Health program, said:

“COVID-19 has brought into painfully stark focus how vulnerable global society is to emerging diseases. Many human behaviours are destroying the natural world and extinguishing other species, and at the same time increasing the risk of future pandemics.

“A narrow vision of health simply increases this risk. Human health, animal health and environmental health are inextricably linked, and thinking about all components as part of a system is key to the One Health concept. It’s now a critical moment for One Health to be embedded in education, research, policy and practice. One Health cannot be an ‘add-on’ but must be at the core of what we do as health professionals, scientists, medics and vets. The health and environmental costs of not doing so are too great.

“The RVC and its partner organisations are proud to be international leaders in One Health education and research”.

Alongside Dr Benfield, the group of veterinary and medical professionals calling for this change includes David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); Judy MacArthur Clark, Past President, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; Lord Trees of the House of Lords; and Babulal Sethia, Past President, Royal Society of Medicine.

The group includes trustees of The Soulsby Foundation, which supports research in One Health through fellowships which enable medical and veterinary professionals, early in their careers, to forge international multidisciplinary collaborations, gain global perspectives, and experience the many cultural contexts of One Health.

RVC runs a joint Masters program with LSHTM, the MSc in One Health: ecosystems, humans and animals, which provides a foundation on the principles of diseases in the context of socio-ecological systems, global health and food safety, as well as training in One Health methodologies, transdisciplinary and systems-level approaches.