New York, N.Y. (Oct. 11, 2023) -- Leaders of the global public health sector have long recognized that an intact and functional environment is crucial for the health and wellbeing of all. What is needed, according to a new commentary, are innovative programs that build on that unifying principle to fully and equitably integrate environmental issues into existing public health programs to effectively prevent pandemics.

“It is essential to actively address pandemic prevention at the source in ecosystems that are under increasing stress,” said Sarah Olson, one of the authors of the commentary published today in BMJ Global Health Journal. “The environmental sector is clearly foundational to health and life as we know it on Earth.”

The commentary calls for an “expanded social-ecological model of health” under the auspices of One Health, which recognizes the relationships and dependencies between the health of animals, people and their shared environments. The aim is to prevent not only pandemics but other deleterious health impacts stemming from climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

“Cross-sectoral institutional coordination and collaboration with the environmental sector to enhance public health is essential not just for averting pandemics but also for mitigating adverse health consequences arising from climate change and the decline of biodiversity,” the authors write.

In principle, global leaders, national and regional governments, multilateral organizations, and civil society recognize that an intact and functioning environment is critical for public health. International treaties and regulations enshrine health as a fundamental human right, global good, and social asset. 

But, the authors observe, there is a pressing need to actively identify and address environmental drivers that contribute to pandemics and other human health problems. True environmental integration, they argue, requires innovative institutional partnerships, cross-sectoral policy structures, sustainable funding models, and inclusive conversation programs involving local communities, Indigenous leaders, and traditional knowledge. 

“We must initiate and implement a framework that comprehensively integrates the environment with health, a framework that currently exists predominantly only on paper,” wrote the authors.

To illustrate the usefulness of such an approach, the authors point to WildHealthNet wildlife health surveillance systems programs developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society in countries including Cambodia, Vietnam, and Lao PDR, which have led to the early detection of threats to human and livestock health. 

“WildHealthNet is just one solution, showing how the environmental sector can contribute to One Health surveillance,” said Olson. “Conservation and public health working together can do more.”