What Is the “One Health” Approach?

In occasion of the last G20 ministerial meeting of Rome (September 5th and 6th), that was based on the main subject of Health, let’s see which one of the discussed topics of this event was: the One Health approach.  

One Health Approach: a short introduction

The One Health approach is a way of re-thinking policies related to human and global health that recognizes the strong connection between human health and animal health. It’s based on a collaborative, multisector and transdisciplinary approach that concerns the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment, in order to prevent global pandemics and to ensure a healthy life for all the inhabitants of the planet. Its own way to achieve this goal is designing and implementing policies and programmes to better public health outcomes trying to use a long-term approach to reduce risks of the development of pathogens coming from the animal world, dangerous for humans.
This is not a new policy, but it seems more important than ever now, not only because of COVID-19. It’s important now because the habits and the way of conceiving the environment is changing in our mind; humans, since the beginning of the modern history, are expanding into new geographic areas in contact with animals, there are changes in climate and land use such as deforestation, and products travel across countries in a global scale.
These factors create and increase problems as the emerging of zoonotic diseases (ex. Rabies, Salmonella, Lyme disease, Ebola, Covid-19) and antibiotic resistance, so it’s important to share epidemiological and laboratory data across sectors in order to prevent and control the spreading around of these issues. Since it pays attention to the needs of the most vulnerable populations of the world, recognising the strong interdependence between their health and the place they live in, One Health represents an ideal approach to achieve global health.
These are also the main focus of the European Joint Focus (EJP): there are 41 laboratories and research centres distributed in 19 participating European countries, that collaborate with the aim to reach important advances in the fields of foodborne zoonoses (FBZ), antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and emerging threats (ET) using a global One Health approach. Consistent with the “Prevent-Detect-Respond” concept, the One Health EJP aims at reinforcing collaboration between institutes by enhancing transdisciplinary cooperation and integration of activities by means of dedicated Joint Research Projects and through education and training in the fields of FBZ, AMR, and ET between European stakeholders and national authorities.

Historical Background and Previous Examples of OH

The notion of One Health has no single origin in human thought. It is, rather, a basic condition of life on earth, repeatedly rediscovered and further explored throughout human history. In fact, the interdependence and the relationship between humans, animals and respect for land and water, which are the pillars of One Health, are an intrinsic and main part of the culture and spiritual beliefs of many ancient civilisations and modern aboriginal people, too. Considering and analysing the 21st century, we can notice the actions and the ideas of James Steele and Calvin Schwab, both from the United States. They have been recognised for their visionary leadership in promoting the ecological nature of both animal and human health. In 1947, thanks to Steele’s warnings about the socio-economic consequences of zoonotic diseases, it was established a veterinary public health unit by the WHO (World Health Organization), in order to create a “one medicine” approach to control and prevent global issues such as epidemics or pandemics coming from both animals and humans. We can find a recent example of the practical use of OH policy in the control and prevention of the Leshmaniosi disease in Italy. According to this policy, the prevention and control of this disease is committed to doctors and vets that together protect our country’s public health. Since Leshmaniosi is a very common disease in cats and dogs – animals daily in touch with human people-  is very easy for it to infect humans. So doctors and vets had to work really in touch with themselves.

One Health in the 21st Century and EU’s role

At the centre of the debate between all the health ministers of the 20 member states, was the fact that OH approach is often underrated and not used as much as it should be to solve global issues. Therefore, One Health can be considered at the base of famous, but rarely implemented, documents of sanitary strategy proposed by WHO, such as the Alma Ata declaration of 1978, the Ottawa Chart of 1986 and more recently the Shanghai Declaration of 2016. These documents have been officially recognized by most of the European health ministries, by the European Commission and a lot of international organizations. Unlikely, because of political will and poor organization regarding topics such as health and development governance, which result weak and not very effective, these recommendations by the WHO have been disregarded or partially adopted. This weakness results very clear if we look at the impact of COVID-19 on human society and all its aspects, from the economic level to the human one. A conclusion has been reached during this meeting: we need to enforce the governance about the development of public health and global health issues, in order to be able to prevent and reduce risks to have economic and sanitary shocks as it has happened during this year of pandemic emergency. To do this, we need to fulfill two fundamental actions:

  • Look at the future with a vision that can influence the decision-making process in all the policies, not        only in the sanitary ones.
  • Boost the active participation of the civil society in order to put into effect this vision in the daily life  

Moreover the One Health EJP, at a European level, will develop sustainable programs and projects beyond the lifetime of EJP itself, through the production of a Strategic research and innovation Agenda (2021-2030) and a European P2P One Health Cooperative Joint Initiative. Therefore it is clear that EU is opened to the use of this approach, but OH policy urgently needs to be improved and advertised across all the European countries, in order to be able to work in a close collaboration and to make its results more evident.

Ludovica Onori  

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