In the last column I introduced the concept of systems change for the benefit of human and animal health.
Fortunately, there is an avenue to work with human and animal doctors, scientists and experts towards a healthy world and it is called One Health.
One Health is defined as a “collaborative, multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary approach working at the local, regional, national and global levels.” The goal is to achieve optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between animals, plants and people, and the environment that they share.
This global initiative is far reaching with a particular focus on food safety, zoonotic disease and antibiotic resistance. It includes research into all aspects of the interaction of animals and people, between pests and people, and the environment that we create to expose and invite transmission. Canada has many leading experts involved in One Health.
To illustrate, I will take the example of the bat in relation to human, animal and ecological health, food safety and antimicrobial resistance.
Bats carry three known transmittable fungi, parasites and more than 60 viruses which may infect humans through direct contact, proximity to food plants, food animals or pets.
Exposure to bats and the diseases they carry increases when they are captured, reared for food or other cultural uses; when their habitat is decreased and they suddenly have contact with humans; or when their habitat is threatened and they relocate into a populated area. They may be the carrier that transmits to another animal, such as rabies from a bat to a dog, that then can transmit to a human through a bite. The solution has been to vaccinate the dog.
First and foremost, healthy bats are part of a healthy ecology and human health. They are super pollinators and seed spreaders. The fact that they can eat 1,000 mosquitoes (which can carry malaria) in an hour is amazing, but they also eat other harmful insects, ones that can destroy food crops or transmit disease. A healthy ecology needs a healthy bat.
But through genomics we know they are proven transmitters of COVID-19. Before we look at the destruction of bat populations as a solution, we must look at the interplay between humans, other animals and bats.
The smallest known mammal, around 13 per cent of bat species are a food source and are hunted as such. Bat meat is also considered as part of treatment for serious ailments such as asthma or epilepsy. They have been consumed throughout history and culturally are an accepted source of protein.
Protecting those populations who have a dependency on bat meat while ensuring the health and safety of the community is the first step. But as human behaviour changes, so does the behaviour of the bat. Through One Health, there are experts weighing in and scientists researching all aspects of this creature. This is a long list including:
- the role of the bat in the ecology;
- the economic benefit of bats;
- loss of habitat and bat behaviour;
- effects of encroachment of human and other mammal populations;
- secrets of the bat immune system (bats have an astounding immune system and seem to survive a massive viral attack which may make them very much a part of the solution);
- bats as a zoonotic host;
- effect of dense animal and human populations;
- using genomics for the rapid development of vaccines; and
- best practices and solutions when a virus crosses into other receptors such as people.
Researchers are also looking at food safety as it pertains to crops grown in bat-infested areas; food safety from the transportation; display, preparation and consumption of bat meat; and the transmission of disease from vendor to consumer.
As well, we must look at the cost of illness and the response of a population to vaccination or alternative treatment and research secondary infection such as pneumonia, which is bacterial and may be resistant to antibiotics.
It is clear that the goal of an optimal health outcome cannot be created in isolation.
If we want to prevent the emergence of disease we must understand the host as well as the environmental and social determinants: the consequence of human behaviour; and be prepared with adequate solutions or research to drive change.
To fully contain future diseases, there must be an understanding of cause (bats for food supply) and the consequence (infectious disease), as well as the entire chain of events and our susceptibility, treatment and cure.
It is important for those in agriculture to check in with their industry, their local government, academic institutions and medical associations to ensure they understand and support the importance of One Health in a systems approach.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we are truly all in this together and we need one collaborative platform that engages every level of expertise to create or nurture systems that ensure optimal health for animals, people, plants and the environment.