British Columbia has seen a convergence of environmental disasters within the past year – including catastrophic forest fires and flooding. When coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these events have had notable impacts on the health of both humans and animals. For example, following the December 2021 floods in southern British Columbia, over 640,000 animals died, and nearly 15,000 people were displaced amidst an increase in COVID-19 transmission due to the Omicron variant. Furthermore, an estimated 4,000 tonnes of unharvested vegetables were lost and three land-based fish farms in the Fraser Valley were severely damaged.
Climate change is shifting the range of organisms we encounter and is contributing to the emergence of diseases in places we may not have previously anticipated. The ways in which we are experiencing climate change has made it ever more apparent that there are shared health impacts between humans, animals and our ecosystems. This growing awareness is driving conversations around the need for a holistic health approach in British Columbia.
One such approach is the concept known as ‘One Health’, which is defined by the World Health Organization(WHO) as “an approach to designing and implementing programs, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.”
In its most basic form, One Health places an emphasis on the interdependencies between human, animal and environmental health. Recognizing that a single sector or siloed approach cannot solve complex and multifaceted issues, One Health is collaborative in nature and requires inter-disciplinary inputs to detect, prepare, prevent and respond to these challenges. Policies designed in alignment with the principles of the One Health concept have the potential to strengthen identification, monitoring and prevention of multifaceted health risks between animals, humans and environments.
One Health efforts are already being championed in British Columbia. Leading representatives in genomics and clinical research are working closely with key government ministries on One Health frameworks and the benefits of such an approach. For example, Genome BC initiated a pilot project in 2020 that surveilled COVID-19 in farmed minks to help prepare and build capacity for future pandemics. Increasingly, there are opportunities to expand and accelerate the implementation of One Health through provincial policy to provide social, environmental and economic benefits to all British Columbians.
As British Columbia explores new opportunities to leverage potential benefits from a One Health approach, there is value in exploring lessons learned in other jurisdictions. Asia in general – and the South and Southeast Asian regions specifically – have witnessed multiple outbreaks of emerging viruses in recent history (e.g., Avian influenza, Swine influenza), resulting in functional One Health models that are nearly a decade old.
For example, following the emergence of Avian influenza in the country in the early 2000s, the Government of Bangladesh formed a multisectoral committee involving all tiers of decision makers to manage the virus, requiring veterinary, public health and wildlife sectors to work together. This collaborative response allowed Bangladesh to successfully navigate the Avian influenza outbreak and eventually evolved into a National Strategic Framework and Action Plan for One Health and permanent Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee. This includes decision makers from Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Fish and Livestock, Environment and Forests and Agriculture. The Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee ensures that a “whole of government approach” is taken in response to pressing health policy challenges such as COVID-19 and anti-microbial resistance. In using One Health principles in its policy making, Bangladesh manages emerging environmental and health events in a proactive, rather than reactive manner.
In Singapore, a contemporary policy priority is to build a ‘city in nature,’ with the goal to integrate more animal and plant life into the highly urbanized and densely populated city-state. This means the increasing interactions between people, animals and their environment will require efforts that promote wildlife conservation, food safety and reduce the risk of transmission of illness between animals and humans. As Singapore works towards operationalizing One Health principles through its city planning strategy, the Singapore Food Agency and Veterinary Authority have been moved into the same building so that government officers in both agencies can work together daily through purpose-driven working groups. The outputs of these inter-agency working groups are underscored by collaborative decision making at the ministerial level. As with Bangladesh, working cooperatively and in alignment with the principles of One Health allows Singapore to be forward-looking in its policy making and be agile in its response to factors like climate change and emerging diseases.
British Columbia can learn important lessons from these jurisdictions in Asia. The experiences of these countries highlight the need for shared responsibility between government ministries, research institutions and other public organizations in managing complex policy issues related to climate change. In Asia, a common model for organizing shared responsibilities is through working groups, a multidisciplinary team of experts that provide bottom-up advice and guidance to senior decision makers across multiple jurisdictions on topics and policy issues. As we enter a third year of managing the COVID-19 pandemic and face the near-certainty of another challenging forest fire season, we must confront the reality of further environmental disasters and the risk of future pandemics in our province. A strength of the One Health approach, as illustrated by the Bangladesh and Singapore cases, is that it allows for proactive measures to mitigate the impacts of health events and to address them before they become all-out disasters. British Columbia is at a crucial moment where it has the opportunity and the resources to further advance One Health implementation for effective climate change mitigation and pandemic preparedness. To let the moment pass without action will have significant health costs for humans, animals and the environment.
This article was authored by George Poulakidas with Benedetta Beltramo, Soumya Kolluru, Lisa Slager and Lindsey Wall*
*Genome BC is working with a team from the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs Program at the University of British Columbia to develop an understanding of how One Health can be accelerated in British Columbia by looking at case studies of existing One Health policies in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangladesh. The final report, titled “A Comparative Analysis of One Health Policies in Asia: Opportunities for Application in British Columbia” is available here.