7 April 2021 (UNEP)* — Aside from the myriad new challenges it introduced, the wide and rapid spread of COVID-19 also revealed long-standing global health inequalities. And while the pandemic may be the most widely publicized example, it is hardly the only case in which those who are already vulnerable bear the brunt of the impact.
Recently, snake bite was re-declared as a neglected tropical disease. According to the World Health Organization, about 5.4 million snake bites occur each year – even though most of their harmful consequences could be prevented by making safe and effective antivenoms more widely available and accessible.
Instead, snake bites result in 1.8 to 2.7 million cases of poisoning. Of these, the majority affect women, children and farmers in poor rural communities in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where health systems are weakest and medical resources sparse. Ultimately, between 81,000 and 137,000 people die, and there are around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities each year.
“This is a great example of how better international and cross-sector cooperation on a One Health approach can make a huge difference,” says Julian Blanc, a wildlife expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
‘One Health’ is based on the understanding that human health and animal health are interdependent and linked to the health of the ecosystems in which they co-exist. UNEP’s experts say that greater cooperation – among ecologists, zoologists and public health officials, for example – can help address health challenges and their social and economic impact.
Uniting human, animal and environmental health, One Health is a cross-cutting approach that carries out programmes, policies, legislation and research in which different sectors work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
Because about two-thirds of known human infectious diseases are shared with animals, and most emerging diseases are associated with wildlife, One Health has focused on the human-animal health nexus – including zoonoses and anti-microbial resistance, when exposure to antibiotics changes bacteria, making it more difficult to treat.
However, says Blanc, the three components of One Health – human, animal and environmental health – cannot be separated, and all three need urgent attention. “Many zoonoses that have become pandemics have been linked to environmental factors like deforestation, and are exacerbated by climate change. We will not succeed in securing human health while we continue to ignore environmental health.”
And while public health has revealed global inequalities, global inequalities cannot be addressed in the absence of more effective public health.
Explains Laetitia Sieffert, a health expert with the Convention on Biological Diversity, “One Health approaches can help address environmental and health inequities in a holistic manner, by promoting equitable access to health services and products, and fostering a sound management of natural resources and ecosystems.”
Under the theme “Building a fairer, healthier world”, World Health Day highlights the right to health and the need to tackle health inequalities.
Expanding its work on One Health, UNEP is working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the WHO; and seeking individuals to serve as experts on the One Health High-Level Expert Panel.
The panel will collect, distribute and publicize reliable scientific information on the links between human, animal and environmental health to assist public officials make appropriate decisions to address future crises. In part, the panel initiative is a response to the COVID-19 health crisis which has highlighted the close links between human, animal and environmental health, in a context of increased human-livestock-wildlife contacts and ecosystems degradation.
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