Planetary Health is a roadmap to transdisciplinary action

Higher education institutions and their researchers can advance Planetary Health as a transdisciplinary solutions-oriented approach to tackle global challenges such as the consequences of climate change and health crises.

This was highlighted by speakers who participated in the Falling Walls Science Summit 2022. The summit is hosted in Berlin, Germany, annually to coincide with the anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, bringing together leaders in science, politics, business and the media.

During a session themed, ‘Restoring Planetary Health with Science and Collaboration’, participants considered the concept of planetary health as an approach, also highlighting best practices such as Rwanda’s Center for One Health at the University of Global Health Equity where it has been institutionalised. The university is one of the first institutions in the world to do so.

Planetary Health has been described by The Lancet as a way to gain insight into and tackle how the human imprint on natural systems is impacting on human health.

“Planetary Health provides the opportunity to adopt new ways to: produce a useful evidence base characterising complex, global environmental change and human health linkages and do transdisciplinary systems-based research involving end users and thereby co-create solutions for transformative change.

“A systems approach for Planetary Health involves understanding that human health outcomes emerge from complex interactions between natural and social systems and that stakeholder engagement is necessary in the co-production of this knowledge,” The Lancet stated in 2017 as the idea started to gain ground.

Planetary Health has also been described as a solutions-oriented transdisciplinary field and social movement focused on analysing and addressing the impact of human disruptions to Earth’s natural systems on human health and all life on Earth. In short, it is concerned about the health of planet Earth as a system, entailing aspects such as One Health.

In her submission during the session, Dr Phaedra Henley, assistant professor and the chair of the Center for One Health at the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) in Rwanda, said Africa is leading in integrating One Health into higher education through the Africa One Health University Network (AFROHUN).

The network is working to transform the training environment and approaches in universities in a bid to develop a workforce without disciplinary barriers, enabling students to understand and appreciate the contribution of disciplines outside their own in predicting, detecting, and responding to the kind of complex health challenges faced today in the health sectors.

According to Henley, about 22 universities across Africa, including from the public health schools and medical schools, have been incorporating the One Health concept into their university programmes.

Institutionalising Planetary One Health

Henley noted that Rwanda is institutionalising a Planetary One Health approach that looks at links between human health and the environment to achieve fundamental behaviour change.

Having led the development and implementation of global health and One Health graduate programmes at universities in Canada and Rwanda for the past nine years, Henley explained the need to integrate the concepts of Planetary Health and One Health across all programmes in education through different education curriculums.

In Rwanda, for example, she said, there is a lot of innovation in how One Health, a collaborative public health approach and part of Planetary Health, is being institutionalised through education and government throughout the entire curriculum so that professionals in each discipline can see the value of Planetary Health.

“The government of Rwanda recognises the value of One Health and part of their approach is to work with higher education institutions to include One Health components into education programmes,” she told University World News.

Through the several courses she has taught in these subject areas and the community-based research projects looking at the intersection of human, animal and environmental health, Henley said she is motivated by the implementation of a transdisciplinary, evidence-based and community-placed approach to training, research and practice.

She also mentioned that UGHE is one of the first universities in the world to teach Planetary One Health and students are taught about the One Health history to achieve a tangible practical experience in order to give future doctors insight into the real causes of patients’ problems.

“The mission of the Center for One Health at UGHE is to train the next generation of leaders in Africa who will champion the One Health approach and work in collaborative, multisectoral partnerships to design and deliver innovative, equitable and evidence-based solutions to global challenges,” she said.

Regarding mental health, from the perspective of Planetary Health, it was agreed that there is a need to strengthen the social connection by showing compassion towards others and advocating for learning from other cultures on how they relate with the environment to foster biodiversity.

Climate change

The current climate crisis that is ravaging African countries also did not go un-discussed during the session on Planetary Health.

Delegates were reminded that Africa is experiencing some of the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis, which are causing food shortages resulting in malnutrition.

“It’s rather unfortunate that the Global South has contributed so little to the situation, and Africa stands to lose the most [due] to the devastating impacts of the climate-change crisis,” said Professor Felix Dapare Dakora, president of the African Academy of Sciences, in response to a question about the Global South’s engagement with the climate crisis.

Against the backdrop of the discussion on Planetary Health, Dakora highlighted Africa’s challenges. It has the highest number of people suffering from malnutrition, quoting the figure of 239 million, while about 252 million are suffering from iron deficiency. He attributed the high numbers to poor farming soils which do not yield enough food, an area related to his extensive research and scholarly publications involving plant sciences and sustainability agriculture.

The World Economic Forum, in August 2022, estimated that 278 million people in Africa suffer from chronic hunger, which corresponds to 20% of the continent’s population. By comparison, 10% are affected globally, a figure that is likely to have increased recently due to the ongoing ravaging impacts of climate change.

He also explained how the Horn of Africa – and cutting through Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti – has been experiencing persistent drought in the past three years. This is especially true of the northern part of Kenya, with the worst situation occurring in Djibouti, whereas, crisscrossing to West Africa the situation has been different, with too much rainfall in the north to the south of West Africa where it has been causing environmental havoc.

Said Dakora: “If the planet is not happy, Africa gets affected the most. Going forward, everyone has to come to the table to discuss the climate crisis.”

He challenged the Falling Walls Foundation to work with other climate change foundations to tackle Planetary Health effectively and boost research globally.

Participants in the conversation agreed that the idea of Planetary Health is powerful and, as a scientific perspective, it offers dynamic and real solutions through collaborative efforts.