We recently discussed the way in which climate change could be damaging our health, focusing on current evidence from phenomena such as flooding, to what we can do to prevent it. A couple of weeks ago, a new field of study, planetary health, has been announced linking pandemics to environmental change, particularly as they spread more quickly around the globe. The link is an interesting one to consider and again raises questions about what can we do to prevent climate and environmental change to safeguard our current and future health.

 

The rise of pandemics

It’s hard to avoid news of all the recent pandemics which have spread across the world. The Zika virus is the most recent, whilst Sars, Ebola and others have continued to make headlines. Whilst many people are quick to blame governments and health system failings for these pandemics, it’s also important to consider the environmental conditions which have been brought about as the result of global warming.

As ecosystems begin to disappear or alter, there are sure to be consequences. Humans and wildlife are forced into contact, which is how many infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria and Zika originated. Getting rid of forests for example, in order to make way for commercial and residential properties and other purposes, creates areas where diseases may spread easily between animals and humans. Indeed, this has been cited as a potential reason behind the spread of Ebola. In this way, the environment almost acts as a safeguard for us against diseases, and destroying it may be the cause behind the rapid spread of serious diseases.

 

Solving the issue

When a pandemic occurs, the usual response is to focus on containment, vaccination and cure, rather than tackling some of the underlying causes such as ecosystem changes. By taking the whole picture into consideration, more can be done to prevent future pandemics. Planetary health aims to look at the relationship between human health and the earth’s health, highlighting concerns as well as finding ways to address the problems.

Treating the causes of these pandemics allow solutions to prevent animal-human disease transfer, whilst also helping the environment. Protecting forestation is just one way which could provide multiple benefits for both humans and planet earth.

 

Global solutions to the problem

Work is beginning to take place to ensure the problem of infectious diseases can be tackled, with different sectors coming together to do so. For example, Predict is a surveillance system implemented by USAid and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which will help monitor potential pandemic pathogens. Predict will help detect and prevent the spill over of potentially pandemic pathogens, informing environmental and health policy to help stop them in their tracks.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust is one of the bodies funding research to help gain a better understanding of human-environmental systems with input from a range of parties including the public and the government.

 

Important of planetary health study

Michael Myers, the MD of the Rockefeller Foundation, when discussing the field said, “public health alone can take us only so far in addressing today’s complex health challenges. We see the need for a new interdisciplinary field that’s as relevant for this century as public health was for the last – planetary health, or what we consider public health”. By embracing the new reality that our health and the planet’s health are inextricably linked, the field of planetary health will identify more effective approaches to ensuring our own health.

Whilst pandemics are difficult to predict, research into the field can help to tackle the environmental factors leading to them, providing objectives and guidelines for governments to learn from. Whilst research continues, there are many things which we can do ourselves to help tackle the issue of environmental change. Our recent climate change and health article has many great ideas for small changes which you can make at home to help slow climate change without having to make drastic lifestyle changes.