Una Europa is currently in the process of laying the foundations for One Health research and education. This includes numerous research issues at the intersection of animal and human health, such as antimicrobial resistance and emerging viral diseases such as COVID19. We talked to the academic lead of Una Europa’s new One Health Focus Area (UNAOH) Olli Peltoniemi from the University of Helsinki. He also leads the Helsinki One Health research network.
What is One Health and why should we all care about it?
One Health is a multidisciplinary concept tackling the current global health issues that involve both animals and humans. Animals and humans share the essentials of life: metabolism, microbes, antimicrobial resistance, genomes and also diseases. Studying the health and well-being of animals helps us find solutions for human health and well-being issues, and vice versa. Thinking holistically, along the logic of One Health, means reminding ourselves of how tightly we humans are linked to the fate of animals and of the environment we live in.
Current megatrends, such as climate change and urbanisation, urgently call for a One Health approach. Due to these trends, we see vectors of diseases spread more easily and hence also experience faster spreading of diseases themselves. An example of this is tick borne encephalitis, the prevalence of which has gone up considerably in Finland over the past decade, with climate change-induced spreading of ticks carrying the virus further North.
Most One Health initiatives, carried out at university level, tend to be concentrated in the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and, less frequently, in the Faculties of Medicine with an excessive concentration of activities on the study of emerging zoonotic diseases. Concepts related to ecology, environment and society need to be integrated much more prominently.
Our One Health activities will follow this logic to complement and support efforts to improve diversity of species, the sustainability of our environment and the resilience of our society, important values and guiding principles for Una Europa.
What can we learn from One Health and the COVID19 pandemic?
Our lack of respect for other species and for the environment at the heart of the present crisis. If we ignore nature and the ecosystems we live in, we have to accept the consequences, such as pandemics.
Bats in China have been identified as the most likely original animal source of SARS-CoV-2. Emerging viral diseases – such as the previous corona infections SARS and MERS – typically transmit from wildlife to domestic animals, which in turn infect humans. For COVID19, the intermediate host is unknown for the time being, but it could have been a domestic species, as in previous cases. If at the site of origin of the current crisis, people had treated animals better, and not captured, kept and eaten wildlife so negligently, the situation might have been different.
One could even argue that such crisis could have been avoided had we applied the One Health concept better in practice. This would have required more appreciation of animal health and welfare, biosecurity, One Health technology transfer, as well as sustainable thinking.
How will One Health be part of Una Europa?
We aim to jointly establish a strong One Health actor on the European stage: UNAOH, Una Europa One Health. Our initiative will build upon the complementary strengths of all eight Una Europa partner universities to improve the current level of teaching, research and technology transfer in One Health.
In teaching, UNAOH aims to increase both the physical and virtual mobility of students and teachers among our partner universities and to exchange One Health-related courses and teaching. We aim to develop new One Health courses at master’s and PhD level. The fast leap towards the use of virtual teaching media in universities speeds up mobility activities of networks. We are in a very good position since we have the partners ready and the tools geared up for this development.
In research, we aim for a strong involvement of UNAOH in current and future European research consortia, covering, for instance, zoonotic disease, antimicrobial resistance, translational research, food safety and African One Health research.
Regarding technology transfer, our mission is to find effective means of transferring knowledge and awareness of the essential elements of One Health, such as animal welfare, biosecurity, food safety and antimicrobial resistance in order to help avoid global health crises in the future.
“Our initiative will build upon the complementary strengths of all eight Una Europa partner universities to improve the current level of teaching, research and technology transfer in One Health.”
What can we expect in the future?
First, we would like to lay the essential foundations to collaborate on the various facets of One Health research. In addition, we will be working on antimicrobial resistance to learn more about its causes and consequences in order to increase awareness of prudent use of antimicrobials in animal and human health.
Our objective is to better synchronize actions to help prevent future emerging diseases from spreading. In case of potential future pandemics, we would like to be among the actors contributing to European crisis management.
Furthermore, we would like to work with countries or areas where the risk of future pandemic outbreaks and the spread of antimicrobial resistance are the highest to make sure that One Health concepts and technology can help tackle problems at their roots.