20 August 2014

Africa: Call for 'Ecohealth' Approach to Tackling Climate Change

Montreal — If researchers are to effectively address the profound challenges that climate change will have on human health, they will have to work across disciplines and with local communities, says a declaration from the 5th Biennial Conference of the International Association For Ecology & Health held last week (11-15 August).

The declaration "is an endorsement and a call to action on climate change", said Maya Gislason, a member of the conference's international advisory committee from the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada.

"Ecohealth is a field of research, education and practice that integrates scientific evidence, professional expertise and community experience with a view to improving the health of humans, animals and ecosystems," the declaration says. "A focus on health - across humans, animals and other species - offers new opportunities to harness synergies across disparate efforts to address climate change."

It is not the first time a call has been made to break boundaries between disciplines but previously there has been little follow-up action, Jean Lebel, the president of the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian public corporation that supports research in developing nations and which co-organised the conference, told SciDev.Net.

One example of an ecohealth approach was Lebel's biological work, alongside a neurophysiologist and an environmental chemist, to investigate Minamata disease, which is caused by mercury poisoning, in the Amazon in the 1980s. At the time, such collaboration was uncommon, but it was crucial to understand the disease, Lebel said.

"What we originally thought was the primary source for the mercury, gold mining, was just part of the problem," Lebel added. Other factors - such as the presence of volcanic rocks and naturally high mercury levels in the area - made him realise the problem was much bigger.

The declaration says it is intended to push more researchers to address climate change issues through concrete actions such as working directly with communities most affected by climate change, for example, those on small island states.

And local communities can be key to research data collection, the conference heard repeatedly.

Howard Frumkin from Washington University, United States, said researchers should try to consider the perspective of those communities that are most likely to use research results.

But scientists "don't have to become activists", said Guéladio Cissé, a sanitary engineer from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. "We need to still be scientists, but [we need to] think globally and act locally."

Ecohealth is still a small academic community, according to Jakob Zinsstag, the president of the International Association for Ecology & Health (IAEH), which co-organised the conference.

Yet he was confident that, in the future, the association will grow to 2,000 individual and 50 institutional members, forming a pool of expertise that governments and international organisations will treat similarly to an intergovernmental panel, such as the one on climate change.

Link to the declaration

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