EcoHealth summit: Asia to be source of next global pandemic?

More than 450 people from 62 countries have gathered in Yunnan to thrash out ways of tackling new challenges to human health.

Guest post by R. Edward Grumbine in Yunnan

How do you advance an emerging integrated approach to the study of relationships between ecological health and human health in a world that continues to favour atomistic views of the well-being of land and people? I am attending Ecohealth, the 4th Biennial Conference of the International Association for Ecology and Health to find out.

Here in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, there are 451 people from 62 countries asking and/or attempting to answer the same question. During today’s sessions, I heard presentations from speakers from many nations: China, Canada, Singapore, Brazil, England, the Netherlands, the US, Cote d’Ivoire, Thailand, Indonesia and more. But it will take more than one day to clarify such a challenging field.

EcoHealth emerged in the 1990s as a broad field of study into how changes in Earth’s socio-ecological systems affect human health. Examples include increases in asthma rates due to air pollution and the impact of a warming climate on the spread of tropical diseases. EcoHealth researchers and practitioners are not simply interested in more integrated studies; they advocate the participation of all involved groups, from villagers to decision-makers, and believe issues of gender and economic equity are important to fully understand today’s health problems.

Mixed in with discussions of brucellosis, water pollution, emerging infectious diseases and inadequate public health infrastructure, are debates about transdisciplinarity, policy barriers and bridges, knowledge brokers and global trends. It’s a pretty heady mix.

Nevertheless, attendees have their feet firmly on the ground. The keynote speaker, Duane Gubler,  director of the Duke/National University of Singapore’s research programme in emerging infectious diseases pulled no punches in his assessment of the future risks of global pandemics.  It is a matter of when and where, not if, and Dr Gubler already has a good idea about the where part. Asia, with its climate, population and urban growth explosions, and poor public health systems, is very likely to be the place. And the regions’ role in economic globalisation and transportation networks aids the rapid spread of people bearing pathogens.

I also attended eye-opening sessions surveying efforts to bring better global response capacities to fight the spread of disease, Canadian efforts to build bridges between environmental groups and  public health officials, lessons on how to network with decision-makers in  five countries in Africa and the paramount role of non-communicable diseases in China.

Given that China is the locus of the conference and that Asia is arguably the most critical region to many specific ecohealth issues (and the fact that I live here), I will focus my reporting for the rest of the meeting on presentations that cover this area where so much social and ecological health is at stake in the very near future.