Conservation Medicine: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Ecological Health

Jackie Sanchez

University of Alaska Fairbanks

With about 7.5 billion people living on earth as of 2019, it is easy to have a human-centered focus for maintaining human health and ensuring sustainability. However, we do not live on this planet alone; there are also an estimated 8.7 million types of non-human animal species living on this planet. Human action has a direct impact on animals and the environment, and it is also important to look at the impact animals have on both humans and the environment. It is not a common practice for the everyday person to think about these animal interactions, but in fact they both influence and are influenced by environmental health. Understanding these interactions and how each influences the other is referred to as the One Health approach. It is important we begin to change our mindset away from human-centered solutions and instead encourage an interdisciplinary approach to improving human, animal, and environmental health. 

Conservation medicine uses the One Health approach by focusing on the relationships occurring at the interfaces of humans, animals, and the environment, in order to achieve optimal health outcomes by maintaining biodiversity. To combat the loss of biodiversity, conservation medicine calls on physicians, veterinarians, ecologists, biologists, social and political scientists, as well as other disciplines to work together to assess and amend the problems affecting biodiversity. To ensure our actions are aimed at the source of the cause, conservation medicine uses the knowledge and skills brought from each individual field to create a holistic approach for problem-solving current crises and for preventative care.

Maintaining biodiversity is the key focus in conservation medicine because it boosts ecosystem productivity and allows for natural sustainability for all life forms. Biodiversity serves many purposes for humans, such as greater opportunities for medical discoveries, resilience to natural disasters, economic development, and even limiting the emergence and spread of pathogens and pests. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, human activity has been increasing the loss of biodiversity. From infrastructure developments and the agricultural industries, which cause complete habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, to petrochemical facilities and industrial networks, which increase environmental contamination and pollution causing climate change, humans are causing environmental destruction. Humans are limiting the amount of appropriate space and habitat available for multiple species to survive and are destroying the habitat quality. These detrimental actions make it harder for species to receive the full benefits of the environment. Humans are also physically removing these species through illegal and legal activities. There are a host of social and global factors (e.g. not enough stable job opportunities and a high demand of illegal species in foreign countries) underlying these issues, making the solutions even more complicated. The cost of replacing the benefits, resources, and services a healthy biodiversity offers would be extremely expensive and, in many cases, impossible to achieve which is why we need interdisciplinary approaches towards sustainability.

Conservation medicine is defined as a “crisis discipline” because of the lack of time there is to reverse the current trends. The severity of the human-caused issues are seen through the steep progression of climate change, the ongoing emergence/reemergence of new diseases, and the increased rate of endangered species. The issues currently facing the earth require a coordinated contribution from all disciplines. Conservation Medicine is the approach we need to ensure the health of humans, animals, and the environment. 

For an individual perspective, the many issues facing the planet can seem overwhelming. However, if one focuses on their issue of choice, it is a step towards improving the health of the planet. The greatest way to help is by educating yourself on a specific topic of interest. Expertise in one field, along with a collaborative spirit, is the work we need to fulfill One Health. Each focus plays an integral role; for example, improving access to clean water will improve community well being that directly affects job availability and improves relations with wildlife populations. Taking action to improve policy on petrochemical facilities release of harmful chemicals reduces greenhouse gases, improves animal habitat quality, and reduces common diseases seen in humans. Working towards conserving a certain species creates a stable ecology that protects other species in the same habitat, as well as creating a healthy environment for humans to enjoy. Every action by an individual is a critical part of a communal effort towards improving human, animal, and environmental health. 

Sources: The Exploring the Environment Project, Global Issues, University of Alaska Fairbanks, World Bank, World Extreme Medicine