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All in the same boat: experts call for a more integrated approach to healthcare

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A boat carrying men and a cow in the river Brahmaputra in Morigaon district of Assam, India, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020.
A boat carrying men and a cow in the river Brahmaputra in Morigaon district of Assam, India, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Anupam Nath
By Natalie Huet

For years, it seemed the world preferred to ignore the expert warnings about the looming threat of a deadly pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed things.

Now academics and campaigners are seizing the moment to advocate a more integrated approach to health – one that accounts for the link between humans, animals and their shared environment to try to prevent future health crises.

The concept of "one health" has been around for two decades. However, it has become a bigger talking point in recent years, as societies grow, encroach on fragile ecosystems, and humans suffer from illnesses thought to have originated in animals – such as Ebola or the new coronavirus.

"The health of humans, animals and ecosystems are closely intertwined," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, in a recorded message to the One Sustainable Health Forum hosted this week by Euronews in Lyon, France.

"The emergence of COVID-19 has underlined the need to strengthen the one health approach. Working together, we can build the safer, healthier and greener world we all want," he said.

Brainstorming without borders

Over the next 15 months, dozens of experts from around the world will brainstorm to come up with recommendations for governments and civil society.

Six international working groups will focus on topics ranging from environmental pollution to the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (or drug-resistant "superbugs") and equitable access to healthcare.

"The spirit is without borders," said Babette Simon, associate professor at the Paris Descartes University and a specialist in nutritional medicine.

Her working group will focus on the environmental and health impact of food systems on the planet's soaring population.

"The food system is one of the major reasons why we are already living outside our planetary boundaries," she argued, citing the industry’s impact on shrinking biodiversity and the fact it accounts for one quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

"If there is one thing a person needs to be able to survive a disaster, it's to be prepared for it.
Runa Khan
Founder and executive director, Friendship NGO

Another working group will look at the interactions between urban communities and biodiversity – the aim being to identify strategies to protect ecosystems and to prevent new animal-borne diseases from being passed onto humans.

"COVID-19 taught us that we can't wait for a pathogen to come. We have to detect them upstream and react quickly," said Benjamin Roche, research director at France’s Research Institute for Development (IRD).

Floating hospitals and climate change training

For some activists working in developing countries, the notion of "one health” is not an abstract concept.

Runa Khan is the founder and executive director of Friendship, a charity that brings healthcare to some of the most deprived populations in Bangladesh, including Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar and rural communities hit by natural disasters.

Friendship runs floating hospitals to reach people living on river islands who would otherwise struggle to access basic healthcare services.

"These ships can go and reach communities where there is no healthcare, roads are under water and there are no other means of transport except water," Khan told Euronews Next.

Her charity also trains communities to adapt to climate change, including by replanting mangrove trees along river banks and embracing facilities that are mobile and can withstand flooding.

"Our whole service delivery mechanism is built on mobility: our schools can be dismantled and moved. We have a tracking system of where the people are going. We have health which follows the people," she explained.

"If there is one thing a person needs, to be able to survive a disaster, it's to be prepared for it. If we were prepared, we would have been able to deal with this COVID crisis much better."

Watch the video in the media player above to find out more.

Video editor • Aisling Ní Chúláin