Article by Margherita Gomarasca (VSF International) and Ellie Paravanni (Brooke)
The G20 have embraced the One Health concept as a way to combat global health challenges, including infectious diseases like COVID-19, and to prevent future pandemics.
But if global leaders are serious about putting the One Health approach into practice, they need to commit resources to strengthen all the three pillars of One Health: human, environmental and animal health. The animal health sector cannot be left behind, especially considering it’s been historically underfinanced all over the world.
The benefits of building up animal health systems will go much further than preventing disease outbreaks. Here are just three ways that better animal health systems will help to achieve optimal health for animals, people and the planet.
- Healthy animals support livelihoods and food security
Globally, livestock support the livelihoods and food security of 1.3 billion people, of whom 600 million are resource-poor farmers (HLPE 2016). Many of these people live in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. An estimated 100 million working horses, donkeys and mules support communities to earn an income through agriculture, tourism and transport (Brooke).
But many livestock keepers can’t access animal health services, meaning animals are too often lost to disease, with serious consequences for food and nutrition security, and loss of income. For instance in Ghana, there are just 63 veterinary officers across the whole country, when 683 are needed to meet demand, as reported by Dr. Anthony Akunzule in a recent interview. And when one rural community could not gain access to any animal health service, all the community’s chickens, pigs, sheep and goats died.
- Animal health protects public health
COVID-19 joins a long list of zoonotic diseases that have wreaked havoc on people’s lives. But some zoonotic diseases can already be prevented through animal vaccination, such as rabies spread by dogs. Rabies is a disease that is entirely preventable. Yet more than 59,000 people still die from rabies every year (WHO). A huge number of these are children, and the vast majority of cases happen in Africa and Asia (ibid.,).
And the most cost-effective solution? Vaccinating dogs. By eliminating the disease in dogs, we can eliminate more than 99% of rabies cases in people (GARC). But the animal health sector often lacks the resources to vaccinate the number of dogs needed to break the cycle (ibid.,). The same is true for other zoonotic diseases.
Better managed animal health services are also key to enforcing responsible use of veterinary drugs, including antimicrobials. This is critical to preserving the efficacy and availability of antibiotics, as well as retain their capacity to cure infectious diseases in animals and humans.
- Healthy animals support the local environment
The livestock sector is often pointed out as a significant contributor to harmful greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. However, higher standards of health and welfare can help to reduce emissions (FAO). And some ways of keeping livestock – like pastoralism, where animals can graze over large areas of land – can actually help to protect the local environment and maintain biodiversity. This approach also provides nutrition-rich food to millions of people worldwide.
Pastoralism can help with carbon capture (keeping carbon dioxide in the ground rather than in the atmosphere) and promote biodiversity through, for example, grazing mobility and distributing seeds across the landscape (PASTRES).
What must happen now
Policymakers are waking up to the transformative potential of the One Health approach. But we must see some significant changes to animal health systems to make the approach a reality.
The Action for Animal Health coalition has provided recommendations for how the G20 can strengthen animal health systems in practice.