By Blair Willis, Arizona University of Health Sciences
Malaria, a disease caused by the bite of a certain type of mosquito, is preventable and usually treatable. Yet the World Health Organization estimated that in 2020 there were 241 million cases of malaria which resulted in 627,000 deaths.
Doctors can prescribe preventive and curative drugs, but they cannot prevent the disease from spreading among the mosquito population and posing a risk to populations with limited access to health care.
“To do something about malaria, you need to understand the ecology of Anopheles mosquitoes, their interactions with humans, and the environmental conditions that contribute to the spread of the disease,” said Frank A. von Hippelprofessor at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “This applies to thousands of diseases where expertise in human health, animal health and environmental health overlaps.”
A recent example is COVID-19. Like malaria, COVID-19 is a zoonic disease, which means it can spread from an animal host to people and from people to animals. But unlike malaria, COVID-19 is contagious between humans.
“In order to understand both the current pandemic and to predict and prevent future pandemics, you need to understand the ecology of the system,” von Hippel said. “In the case of COVID-19, this includes the ecology of bats that harbor the virus, how this virus can ecologically jump to humans, and how it spreads.”
Capturing each of these factors is too heavy a task for a single expert or single area of research. To fully understand the complexities and interconnections between people, animals, plants and the environment, a more collaborative approach to research is needed.
To that end, Arizona University of Health Sciences is supporting a campus-wide One Health research initiative, led by von Hippel. By integrating human, animal and environmental health expertise, One Health aims to improve health outcomes, better respond to public health challenges, ensure safe and healthy food and water, and protect global health security.
The Ultimate One Health Topic
A trip to a local grocery store or farmers’ market has far greater health implications than one might think, including the availability of healthy food. Indeed, our food system is very complex, according to Kerry Coopera BIO5 Institute member and lecturer at the School of Comparative Animal and Biomedical Sciences of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The products we eat are typically grown on farms, where contaminants in the soil and other environmental conditions can threaten the safety of our food, Cooper said. Water used to grow plants can also pose its own threats. Local water sources are essential not only for crop growth, but also for the survival of wildlife such as birds, insects and other animals, including livestock.
Each aspect of the cycle can be further disrupted by human-caused environmental changes – pollution, for example – that affect the food supply.
“There are a lot of things that go into food safety that most people don’t think about,” Cooper said. “That’s why I see food safety as the ultimate subject of One Health.”
A more complete story
Kristen Pogreba-Brown, an associate professor at the Zuckerman College of Public Health, has championed the One Health approach for several years. As an infectious disease epidemiologist, she sees One Health as essential to solving “tough issues” like pandemics, antibiotic resistance and water security.
“These are very big problems that we’re not going to solve with one entity or one discipline,” said Pogreba-Brown, who teaches an applied One Health course at Zuckerman College of Public Health. “We’ve been working locally for years, but now we’re starting to look more seriously at collaborations and opportunities to address these issues together.”
Pogreba-Brown and Cooper have combined their expertise in the area of foodborne illness for several years.
“Kerry says he doesn’t want to talk to people and investigate them for a living, and I don’t want to collect fecal samples,” Pogreba-Brown said. “That’s one of the things that makes us good collaborators.”
Pogreba-Brown’s research can collect information from people, such as what someone ate before they got sick, while Cooper’s research can confirm whether the bacteria that caused the illness came from the source reported by the patient.
“She’s the epidemiologist, I’m the microbiologist,” Cooper said. “We can combine his data and my data to get a much more complete story.”
A holistic approach
At the inaugural UArizona Health Sciences One Health Symposium in May, Kate Worthing describes what a veterinarian can bring to a One Health team.
“A veterinarian thinks about the humans who are associated with an animal and the environment shared by humans and the animal,” said Worthing, assistant professor of practice at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s this lateral thinking and holistic approach that makes vets such great team members.”
Worthing, Cooper and Pogreba-Brown are laying the foundation for stronger collaborations, especially in the area of food safety and foodborne diseases that affect animals and humans.
Worthing is also interested in working with Pogreba-Brown and other public health researchers to study One Health animal shelter approaches. They hypothesize that animal shelters could serve as a useful model for infection control in human long-term care facilities.
New research opportunities
One Health Symposium attendees also heard from Pogreba-Brown about the research she and her graduate students are conducting on the impact of the pandemic on conditions at the Pima Animal Care Center. Her class has conducted needs assessments and other projects with the center through the implementation of a One Health model.
“Everyone wants to make decisions based on evidence,” said Pogreba-Brown, who is a member of the BIO5 Institute. “But first you have to have the evidence.”
If researchers can demonstrate that One Health approaches to animal care are successful, it could attract federal funds to initiate studies and implement new human health care policies.
“The idea is to break down research silos,” von Hippel said. “We have lots of research groups on campus working on one or two aspects of One Health, but usually not all three. The expertise is there, we just need to bring everyone together.”
One Health is supported in part by state funding from the New Economy Initiative at the University of Arizona and allocated to UArizona Health Sciences.
The next UArizona One Health Symposium will take place September 28 and will feature Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, as keynote speaker.
A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Health Sciences website.