April 12, 2018

By Sharon Deem, DVM, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Conservation Medicine

June 21, 2018 Update: Watch Sharon's TedXTalk here.

I spend a lot of time thinking about health. As a wildlife veterinarian, this includes the health of my animal patients, but also the health of the environments that support my patients and the health of humans that are dependent on both animals and environments. I have worked with forest elephants in Africa, children in Asian villages, and global efforts to help feed the world's 7.6 billion human inhabitants. But, what might African forest elephants, children on the other side of the world, and food production have in common and what do they have to do with your health?

Forest elephants are ecosystem engineers, or forest gardeners, that help maintain the Central African rainforest and the lungs (e.g., trees) of planet Earth.

Just like you, all children, no matter in Missouri or Myanmar, need fresh water, fresh air and enough calories to be healthy and survive.

At first glance it may be harder to appreciate the link between food production and your health. One example is evident as we humans continue to modify landscapes and destroy wetlands—places that for millennia have been stopover sites along migrating wild bird flyways—to replace them with commercial poultry farms. This leads to increased contact between wild and domestic birds and the mixing of influenza strains as the migrating birds continue to use their flyways only to find commercial poultry along the route. It is at these human-modified landscapes where influenza strains may be shared between wild and domestic birds. These influenza viruses may then spillover from chickens, and other poultry, to the growing human population.

These three examples demonstrate the connections that link environmental, animal and human health. Often referred to as One Health, connections such as these remind us that the health of each, for better or for worse, is dependent on the other. Just as we understand that our health depends on clean air to breathe, water to drink, and safe foods to eat, we increasingly understand what it takes to provide these resources. We need biodiversity. We need animals like elephants and tortoises and hornbills to disperse seeds and care for forests, and bivalves (e.g., mussels and clams) to help maintain our freshwater rivers, and plants that are the only true link for harnessing the sun's energy necessary for the production of all food. We as a species need plants and animals, period.

So what is the current status of this shared One Health? Not good! Challenges that threaten the health of animals, plants and people escalate daily as our human footprint extends across the planet. From climate change and habitat degradation to species extinctions and increased pollutants, we humans are threatening wildlife conservation, environmental stability and public health. We can no longer deny these threats. We can no longer disregard the connection between our own human-centric health and that of the environments that support us and of the other animals that share the planet with us.

There is hope! Scientists and non-scientists alike have come to increasingly appreciate the health links across the One Health Triad (humans, animals, plants). In recent years, this has led to a growing movement that brings disciplines together for a holistic approach to health care. This One Health approach is not just about naming the threats, but more importantly it is about finding the solutions to the greatest global health challenges of the 21st century. Teams of One Health practitioners, from disciplines as diverse as veterinary medicine and anthropology, human medicine and politics, to engineering and ecology are joining forces to find solutions to the health challenges of today.

In Saint Louis we are fortunate to have institutions and individuals working together to develop strategies that will help to ensure public health, wildlife conservation and environmental stability—the three goals of One Health. As we combine research and education efforts of the amazing universities and medical colleges, the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Zoo, nonprofits and for-profits, many in St. Louis are working to ensure healthy people, healthy animals and healthy plants; in other words, working for Planetary Health. Whether we wish to find solutions to cancers and contaminants, food security and safety, or we wish to continue to share the planet with other amazing and wonderful species, we are collaborating to tackle the multifaceted health and conservation challenges of today. St. Louis, Missouri, is a hub for One Health, and the work we do will help ensure the health of you and your family whether you live in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, or Saint-Louis, Senegal, Africa.

Learn about the links between wildlife conservation and human health from Saint Louis Zoo staff, and local university students at the annual One Health Fair on Saturday, April 14.

Click the photos below to enlarge.