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Animal and human health, one health approaches

Davos, Switzerland initially seems an unlikely place for a conference on the relationship between animal and human health, but actually is quite a fitting venue.  From the mid-18th Century onwards, the Swiss mountain air was recommended for patients suffering from lung diseases and many of the hotels were once tuberculosis sanatoria (Think Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain).

Tuberculosis is just one of many diseases that can jump from animals to humans; for example, transmission can occur from cows to humans via unpasteurised milk. The complex relationship amongst animal health, human health, agriculture and food security were the topic of a forum on the One Health movement your blogger attended recently in Davos.  This movement encapsulates the idea that research and policy need to take a integrated ecosystem approachjust think about responses to bird flu and swine flu. Currently, global efforts are being spearheaded by a tripartite collaboration amongst the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). A few facts:

  • According to the OIE, 60% of human pathogens are of animal origin, 75% of emerging animal diseases can be transmitted to humans.  And 80% of agents that can be used for bioterrorism are pathogens of animal origin.  Although the calculation of these figures leaves some room for debate, the point is that health in animals affects health in humans.
  • The improper use of antibiotics in farming is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.  This is a serious problem, particularly as few incentives exist for pharmaceutical producerseither animal or humanto develop new classes of antibiotics, an issue raised during Sweden’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2009.
  • Agriculture, nutrition, livelihoods and poverty reduction are intertwined.  Health animals are a source of income and food security; improved nutritional statusincluding access to grains and produce, not just animal productsincreases immune system function and susceptibility to disease.

This all seems like common sense, but operationalising the One Health movement presents myriad challenges.  Although WHO, FAO and the OIE are working well together at a global level, there is not sufficient involvement of the trade sector (via the World Trade Organization and the International Labour Organization).  Also, on a national level responses involve collaboration amongst ministries of health, agriculture and tradewhich is difficult in countries where ministries acts like fiefdoms. Traditionally, veterinary medicine and human medicine have been separate, along with surveillance systems for animal and human diseases.  Within the development sector, as well, international aid streams and non-governmental organizations can be very siloed in their work.

At the very least, however, there is greater awareness of these linkages and there has been much progress on collaboration and information sharing in recent yearsoffering a good base for expanding One Health.