The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates “intimate” linkages between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems, as zoonotic diseases spread between animals and people, the World Health Organization (WHO) chief said on Wednesday.
While the concept of One Health – where multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes – may have once seemed simple, “it is no longer”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, opening the 27th Tripartite Annual Executive Committee Meeting World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
“We can only prevent future pandemics with an integrated One Health approach to public health, animal health and the environment we share. Now is the time to take our partnership to a new level”, he underscored.
Zoonoses on the rise
The WHO chief maintained that to keep people safe, One Health must be translated into local-level systems.
He pointed out that approximately 70 per cent of all emerging and re-emerging pathogens are zoonotic, jumping from animals to humans, warning that “we don’t know when the next threat – the next disease X – will emerge”.
“It is clear, however, that One Health must be about more than zoonoses”, Tedros spelled out. “We cannot protect human health without considering the impact of human activities that disrupt ecosystems, encroach on habitats, and further drive climate change”.
These activities include pollution, large-scale deforestation, intensified livestock production and the misuse of antibiotics, along with how the world produces, consumes and trades food.
Effective collaboration needed
“Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving us a unique opportunity to drive real change”, said the top WHO official, noting that One Health will be the focus of upcoming G7 and G20 meetings.
He flagged the need for more science, better data and bolder policies across multiple sectors, “with a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach”.
“Expectations for the Tripartite, and the need for effective collaboration, have never been higher”, he said.
Citing closer collaborative efforts at regional and country levels, and progress in joint areas of work, including the launch of the United Against Rabies forum, Tedros said that advances are also being made in establishing governance structures to curb antimicrobial resistance, and noted that the Global Leaders Group held its first meeting earlier this year.
Expert Council in the works
The UN health agency chief said that WHO will support and host the secretariat of a One Health High Level Expert Council, which will advise the expanded Tripartite members on action priorities, building consensus and collaboration.
“We also need to ensure that all partner organizations have the resources to play this role jointly”, he stated.
For its part, WHO will scale up investment and work through its disease programmes and technical networks to strengthen the One Health workforce for outbreak alert and response.
“We are at a critical juncture. We must build on this momentum to strengthen the One Health approach, with public health and disease prevention as its central pillar”, Tedros underscored.
The WHO chief concluded by saying: “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re stronger together”.