Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has underscored the importance of environmental health practitioners as the world marks the 9th World Environmental Health Day amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mkhize delivered the keynote address at the World Environment Health Day webinar on Tuesday.
Reflecting on South Africa's ongoing fight against COVID-19, Mkhize said environmental health practitioners played a critical role in the outbreak of the pandemic in the country.
"In the early stages of the outbreak, the critical role played by environmental health practitioners in disease prevention and response had already become evident. In line with International Health Regulations 2005, environmental health practitioners at the points of entry had the unenviable task of preventing the impossible importation of COVID-19 as the first line of defense and to protect citizens from the health risk that arise as a result of international travel," said the Minister.
With South Africa as a transit hub for many African countries, the role of officials at the ports of entry has been central to the country's COVID-19 response.
"The measures implemented by our port health officials at the point of entry helped to not only to delay the introduction of the disease but also an opportunity to strength its preparedness of the inevitable entry of the disease into our country," said Mkhize.
According to the 2006 WHO report, South Africa has a high-level environmental burden of disease with 16% of all deaths in the country estimated to relate to the state of the environment.
The science of environmental health is based on the premise that prevention is better than cure as the profession is concerned with the key environmental factors that are at the heart of the public health dynamics.
This was evident in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic response where the environmental health practitioners became even more critical.
The environmental conditions that people live and work, the availability of water and sanitation, the management of borders, the attitude and habits of hygiene practices came under the spotlight as the country battled against COVID-19.
The pandemic forced the cooperation of all spheres of government and directed that the whole of government join hands with society against the fight of an invisible enemy.
"Our experience has been that outbreaks whether it is COVID-19, cholera, malaria, listeriosis, all brought forth the importance of environmental health and the need for a cooperative response approach by both government and society," said the Minister.
With an encouraging recovery rate of 90% and South Africa now past its surge, the Minister warned against complacency.
"As the country moves to alert level 1 and we work towards reclaiming our lives as we knew it before, the risk of complacency amongst our community members can become our biggest drawback. Having witnessed a resurgence around the world, we must proceed with vigilance and care, understanding that the risk of being forced back into hard lockdown remains very real," he said.
In this regard, Mkhize urged environmental health practitioners to heighten their visibility in communities and continue to empower them on prevention measures and enforcing the provisions of the National State of Disaster for protection of public health.