World Environmental Health Day: One Health approach is key in preventing pandemics

A healthier environment can reduce global burden of disease by a quarter

By Taran Deol
Published: Monday 26 September 2022
COVID-19 and its devastating impact has only reinforced the argument in favour of ensuring a robust early warning system. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
COVID-19 and its devastating impact has only reinforced the argument in favour of ensuring a robust early warning system. Photo: Wikimedia Commons COVID-19 and its devastating impact has only reinforced the argument in favour of ensuring a robust early warning system. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On World Environment Health Day, celebrated September 26, there is an urgent need to strengthen the One Health approach that functions at the nexus of human, wildlife and the shared environment health. More than 70 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans have an animal origin, as per the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised public interest in disease outbreaks. Disease outbreak research was highly valued even before 2020, but COVID-19 and its devastating impact has only reinforced the argument in favour of ensuring a robust early warning system. 

The theme for this World Environment Health Day is “Strengthening Environmental Health Systems for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.” 

Read more: Is the pandemic over? We asked an economist, an education expert and a public health scholar their views

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations to be achieved by 2030. Of them, seven Goals, 19 targets and 30 indicators rely heavily on environmental health, as per the International Federation of Environmental Health. 

Climate change could facilitate the cross-species transmission of some 4,000 viruses by 2070, a 2022 study published in Nature journal found. With the possibility of reducing a quarter of the global disease burden by ensuring healthier environments, as per the global health body, a One Health approach is an absolute necessity. 

What is One Health approach

Stressing its importance in preventing, predicting, detecting, and responding to global health threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO defines it as “an integrated, unifying approach to balance and optimise the health of people, animals and the environment.” 

The aim is to have a multi-sectoral approach to achieve long-term, effective solutions to issues surrounding food and water safety, nutrition, controlling zoonoses, pollution management, and combating antimicrobial resistance.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) work together with WHO to form the One Health Quadripartite. 

A high-level expert panel was formed after the pandemic in May 2021 to advise these bodies. “The panel will also have a role in investigating the impact of human activity on the environment and wildlife habitats, and how this drives disease threats,” the WHO noted. 

So, what has India achieved on this front so far?

The first One Health consortium was launched in October 2021, led by the National Institute of Animal Biotechnology, Hyderabad, constituting 27 organisations. Under the Pradhan Mantri Atma Nirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojna, the first One Health institute is set to come up in Nagpur. Over Rs 64,000 crore were earmarked for the scheme in the 2021-22 Union Budget for over six years to combat new and emerging diseases. 

However, the concept is in a very nascent stage in India with sporadic efforts in some states, according to Debanjana Dey, a postdoctoral policy fellow at the DST- Centre for Policy Research at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. 

We are yet to come up with a mechanism for mainstreaming One Health. 

Wildlife surveillance has been the biggest lacunae, according to Abi Vanak, senior fellow at research institution Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). 

“The world has realised wildlife is the source for viral pathogens and domestic animals are the interface, but India is yet to address this head-on. Institutes for high-security animal disease, virology and epidemiology exist but only in silos which runs counter to the concept of One Health,” he told Down To Earth.

A weak biosafety process also hinders India’s One Health programme, barring a largely reactive approach. The Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Biotechnology are the agencies responsible for the biosafety process, but it needs to be more standardised as it remains highly sectoral. 

Read more: Impact of environment on health: Africa adopts strategy for better synergy between sectors

“Bats, primates and rodents have the highest potential to harbour pathogens that can infect humans. Those who handle these don’t always follow the necessary biosafety protocols. We need to change how these rules are communicated and enforced in the field,” Vanak said.

There is also a severe shortage of biosafety labs in India, with only one biosafety level (BSL) 4 lab — the highest level of biosecurity, generally used for extremely infectious viruses like Ebola — at the National Institute of Virology in Pune.

Investment on this front is critical in preventing pandemics, particularly so in biodiversity-rich parts of India such as the Himalayas, the north-east region, Western Ghats and central India. 

India has, in the past, made efforts to practise a One Health approach, but gaps remain. 

Several efforts were listed and critiqued by a 2019 paper published in ScienceDirect journal. The National Standing Committee on Zoonoses lacked representation from the wildlife sector and had unclear guidelines and the National Influenza Pandemic committee was disease-specific and only for the duration of the pandemic, the paper found. 

The roadmap to combat zoonoses suffered from advocacy lacunae at the central government level, while the One Health roadmap didn’t have sufficient evaluation plans to track progress, the report added.

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