Salmon strips dry on a rack near the center of the Inupiat village of Teller on Sept. 2, 2021. The well-being of the environment that produces salmon runs is tied to the well-being of people who depend on the fish, and the connections are considered in the One Health approach increasingly embraced by scientists and policymakers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The connections between people, animals and the environment drew hundreds of scientists, students, educators, health providers and policy makers to Fairbanks this week for a conference on the concept called One Health.
There is a simple explanation of the idea, said Arleigh Reynolds, a veterinary professor and director of the Center for One Health Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“It’s the way the world works,” said Reynolds, whose center is the conference host.
In more detail, the One Health concept pushes for a “a simultaneous deep and broad approach, rather than do what we usually do, which is treat the outcome,” Reynolds said.
It requires cross-discipline collaboration to understand the root causes of human, animal and environmental health conditions, and it requires open-mindedness rather than isolated work in specialized subjects. “The minute you enter the One Health world, you admit you don’t know everything,” he said.
The One Health approach has been widely embraced – by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the World Health Organization, by the United Nations, and of particular relevance to Alaska and UAF, by the Arctic Council. The eight-nation organization has its own “One Health, One Arctic” program for integrating knowledge, and UAF’s Center for One Health Research, which has a focus on the circumpolar north, is one of the participating partners.
But lofty One Health intentions can collide with cold bureaucratic and funding realities, featured speakers said at the conference.
The competitive grants that fund research tend to reward very specific subjects, with proposals that are pitted against each other, which isn’t conducive to the holistic approach of One Health, according to Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, a consultant helping scientists who work in the Arctic, said in a keynote address on Wednesday.
Another problem is the mismatch between deeply held cultural values and the limited opportunities for meaningful input to government entities within Alaska, said Harmony Jade Sugaq Wayner, who spoke Wednesday about the way fish is integral to Indigenous well-being and identity in her home Bristol Bay region. It is difficult for people from there to express those values to policy-making organizations like the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and Alaska Board of Fisheries.
“How do you encompass what well-being means in a three-minute testimony?” she said.
Even when government officials are on board with One Health concepts – for example, as with the state’s current push for projects that support local food production and food security – that support can be temporary, conference participants said. “It’s hard to have a long-term plan when you have two- to four-year political cycles,” Reynolds said during a discussion on food security.
Geopolitics can erect obstacles, too, said Antti Oksanen, a veterinarian and research professor at the Finnish Food Authority who presented information about that nation’s long experience with tapeworm infections. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine harmed Arctic Council projects, Oksanen said. “Now, unfortunately, One Arctic-One Health is very much threatened by Russian politics,” he said Wednesday. “It’s like: Half Arctic and Very Much Health.”
There is some positive movement, however.
Scientific research structure is starting to accommodate a more holistic approach, Reynolds said. The National Science Foundation, for example, now asks grant applications for statements putting proposed projects into wider context, he said.
An important development is community-based research, including projects within Alaska, that address the local needs rather than the needs of outside scientists, he said.
In the international science community, there is a growing number of “multidimensional” subjects, said Birgit Kuna, a biologist and environmental epidemiologist with the German Aerospace Center. Study of climate change in particular is increasingly focusing on health, she said Thursday. Top climate change studies published in 2022 included one, led by Georgetown University scientists, that examined how climate change increases cross-species viral spread; another led by University of Hawaii scientist about how over half of the known human pathogenic diseases can be aggravated by climate change; and a review by the Lancet, one of the world’s leading health journals, that describes global health as being “at the mercy of fossil fuels.”
More work along those lines is needed, she said. “Currently the focus is still very much on the human being surrounded by the environment as if we humans are kind of standing somewhere else and the environment is around us,” she said.
Multiple environmental and health forces have affected UAF’s One Health conference itself.
This year’s event was plagued with travel interruptions. More than 300 people from 20 nations stretching from the Arctic to Africa registered to attend in person, with another 100 or so signing up for online attendance. But bad weather in Anchorage grounded flights; among those stuck in Anchorage was Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, a scheduled keynote speaker.
That was not as disruptive as what happened in 2020, however. An ambitious conference program was slated for March of that year – and was abruptly scrapped when COVID-19 emerged as a global disease,
“We didn’t want to be the One Health program that brought COVID to Alaska,” Reynolds said.
Instead, that conference was reconstituted as an online-only event in 2021. This year’s event offered online participation for those who want it.
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