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Clockwise from top left: Steven Osofsky, Gen Meredith, Alex Travis, David Lodge, Lorin Warnick and Katherine McComas. 

Reunion panel discusses value of ‘One Health’ approach

“One Health” is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that aims to achieve optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment.

In short, it’s the idea that we’re all in this together.

“One Health is a way of reminding all of us of our place within the whole,” said Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff in a video introduction to a panel discussion on the One Health philosophy at Cornell.

The virtual panel, “One Health: Cornell’s Collaborative Approach to Ensuring Human, Animal and Ecosystem Health in the Time of COVID-19,” was held June 6 as part of Cornell’s Reunion weekend.

Lorin Warnick, Ph.D. ’94, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, talked about recent milestones at CVM related to One Health, including opening the Cornell Wildlife Health Center and establishing the Master of Public Health program (MPH).

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the great need for an interdisciplinary approach,” Warnick said, “which is offered by the profession of public health and also the value of a One Health perspective.”

Wildlife and conservation experts such as Steve Osofsky, DVM ’89, the Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health and Health Policy and director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Center, have long known that how humans interact with the natural world have greatly increased the risk of pandemics.

“First, we eat or trade the body parts of wild animals,” he said. “Second, we capture and mix wildlife species together to trade them in markets. And thirdly, we destroy what's left of wild nature at a dizzying pace.”

The effects of these behaviors can now be seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the disease most likely emerged from human contact with bats or other wildife, he said. “It’s time for markets selling wildlife, especially bats, primates and rodents, to be totally unacceptable to humanity,” Osofsky said.

Two-thirds of all emerging human infectious diseases in the last 35 years have originated in animals, which has painted animals that carry disease negatively in the press, said Alex Travis, director of the Master of Public Health Program and professor of reproductive biology at the Baker Institute for Animal Health in the CVM.

“But it’s really important to understand that nature and animals can also protect us,” he said. For example, in areas with midsized carnivores, rodents that carry ticks that spread Lyme disease behave more cautiously, which reduces tick spread to humans.

Indeed, the ways people communicate about One Health might have unintended negative consequences, said Katherine McComas, Ph.D. ’00, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs and professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I've wondered whether One Health messages, if not put within a wider context of the [contributing] human factors … could amplify a tendency to blame wildlife,” she said, noting that people blame mice for the spread of Lyme disease, and bats and pangolins for coronavirus, which distracts people from long-term, policy-related solutions.

McComas’ research has shown that the villanization of bats can be countered with communication campaigns that reveal their agricultural benefits (insect-eating) and build compassion by educating about white-nose syndrome that has decimated bat populations. This could lead to more support for conservation, while examining all the drivers of disease.

Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program and lecturer in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, said working closely with communities to identify their needs and collaborate on solutions was one of the best ways to overcome health barriers.

She pointed to student projects that collaborate with community partners and use a whole systems approach. For example, Cornell students have helped build and improve upon a fruit and vegetable subscription program that works with local farmers to make fresh produce available to low-income individuals with diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

In three years, the program has grown to 150 subscribers and includes cooking classes, recipes and a delivery service. “It’s a great One Health project,” she said.

By supporting relevant interdisciplinary research, influencing change toward environmental and socially beneficial practices in corporations, and inventing new, sustainable technologies and goods, Cornell has used a One Health approach to have real-world impacts to address complex health problems the world faces, said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

“Together, with partners inside and outside Cornell, we’re influencing public opinion, improving practices, helping provide more sustainable and healthier products and guiding public policies that will make the planet a better place for our children and grandchildren,” Lodge said.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli