Recent disease outbreaks like Ebola and bird flu occurred largely because humans and animals share an environment in which disease can spread from one to the other.
Experts and authorities who deal with human health, animal health, and environmental conservation are urged to cooperate to deal with such health crises effectively.
“The problems we face in health are much too complex to be dealt with by a single discipline or a single set of skills,” says Jacques van Rooyen from the Faculty of Veterinary Science’s Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies at the University of Pretoria (UP).
UP vet students treat a bullock with abscess with help from a Mnisi community member. Working on animal health in context is an important part of the One Health approach. Image credit Greg Simpson.
“In the past, veterinarians, doctors and ecologists failed to work together in multidisciplinary teams to solve problems and combine interventions, and we need to train them to have a different mind-set.”
One Health in action: support for rural communities at the interface with wildlife conservation and ranching areas
Van Rooyen is based at the Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Research Station in the Kruger National Park. One of the Station’s activities is to engage with the Mnisi community in the northeastern corner of Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, in developing ways and means to enable humans and animals co-exist in a healthy way.
This essentially means trying to establish a balance between wildlife conservation, natural resource use, farming, animal disease control, and human health, through the collaboration of experts in different disciplines to limit the transmission and adverse effects of diseases that occur in this situation. Internationally, this holistic, multidisciplinary approach is known as One Health.
“The University of Pretoria is in a favourable position to implement the One Health concept in southern Africa in terms of research and training,” explains van Rooyen. This is because of UP’s access to extensive expertise across disciplines, including human medicine, veterinary science and ecology. UP in fact has the only veterinary faculty in the country, and its access to veterinary specialists enables it, in association with other discipline specialists at the University, to deal with challenges holistically.
He says that the Faculty of Veterinary Science at UP has made substantial progress in incorporating the One Health philosophy into its undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, and that the University is working towards developing institution-wide training at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in this regard. For its efforts the Faculty received recognition from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for its One Health-driven work on zoonoses in the Mnisi Study Area.
Van Rooyen explains that most of the students involved in the Faculty’s One Health initiative come from all over Africa, and that they are often already working as state veterinarians or within the health and/or ecological sectors.
During the course of their training these students conduct research, and are required to spend a week in the Mnisi study area to gain hands-on experience by working with traditional healers and conservation entities, and in veterinary and human health clinics. They can then take what they’ve learnt and apply it to the complex health challenges that they encounter during the course of their daily work back home.
Fighting zoonoses in Mnisi, Mpumalanga
“Research in the Mnisi study area focuses on the transmission of diseases between wildlife and domestic animals, and from animals to humans,” says van Rooyen. Diseases transmitted from animals to humans, such as rabies, are known as ‘zoonoses’. According to some estimates up to 60% of human infectious diseases originate from wild animals and they can play a substantial role as sources of emerging diseases for both humans and domesticated animals.
“Habitat encroachment results in the increased likelihood of zoonotic diseases to occur,” explains van Rooyen. “As human populations expand into animal territories, there is more interaction between livestock, wildlife and humans that increases the likelihood of the spread of disease between them.”
While the zoonoses are a major issue in the Mnisi area, elsewhere in South Africa and Africa the focus of a One Health initiative might rather be food security, or protecting the natural resources that animals and humans rely on.
The best measure of the outcomes of One Health that van Rooyen has come across is “working together in such a way that we can measure the number of lives of animals and people saved, the amount of money saved, and the level to which ecosystem services are improved.” This is exactly what the Hans Hoheisen Wildlife Research Station and the Mnisi project, through research, training and service, hopes to achieve.
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