From theory to practice

From theory to practice

Reducing the risk of zoonotic disease spillover is an immense challenge, and while science can guide transformative change, it cannot make it happen. Human action and engagement alongside political buy-in are critical to make possible the far-sighted solutions that will benefit our complex ecosystem

Why and how are healthy animals essential for healthy people?

Human and animal health are inherently interlinked and bound to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Healthy animals and healthy people come hand in hand.

Animals play a major role in our lives and economies. The nexus is prominently highlighted by our reliance on animal-sourced products: terrestrial and aquatic animals support people’s health and well-being, generating food and employment. Animal diseases therefore directly threaten the income of the communities that depend on livestock production for their livelihoods. This makes food security and food safety a priority to ensure animal production systems are efficient and sustainable. 

Furthermore, human health is deeply intertwined with the health of wildlife. By protecting wildlife, we safeguard biodiversity – and invest in a healthier, more sustainable future.

Today’s increasing risk of health threats at the interface between animal, human and environment underlines the need to consider global health through a holistic One Health approach, where multiple sectors, disciplines and communities work together towards achieving better health outcomes for all. The fact that the health of humans, animals and the environment are part of the same equation can no longer be overlooked. Animal health matters to everyone.

How do today’s challenges and emergencies create spillover of pathogens between animal and human species?

Changing patterns in climate and land use, unsustainable agricultural practices and unregulated wildlife trade enable pathogens to evolve into new forms. This increases the likelihood of spillover between animals and humans.

The world is constantly evolving, and so are the interactions at the human-animal-environment interface. This is a key element in facilitating the emergence, re-emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. Global movements of goods and people, together with technological and demographic change, will only continue to create more opportunities for pathogens to cross over.

Some evolving human practices also threaten animal health and welfare. Just think of the warming of waters and how they are increasing the frequency of fish mass die-offs. Financial turbulence can prevent a country from getting back on its feet after an outbreak or a pandemic like Covid-19, adding yet another layer of complexity to the way we address health challenges.

The World Organisation for Animal Health advocates for reducing the risk of zoonotic disease spillover at source through improved prevention measures including biosecurity at farms, which is more efficient than relying on disease detection and response. We also advocate for investments in veterinary services capacities, with well-structured, staffed and experienced services boosting resilience across communities.

What are effective approaches to tackling health threats, including preventing future pandemics?

Risk reduction strategies need to be integrated into a country’s development planning. A risk-based approach considers many different hazards and seeks multi-sectoral responses to threats to animal, human and environmental health. But what can be done to enable multidisciplinary thinking and action? To start, an inclusive, participatory approach to One Health governance ensures that the voices of relevant civil society, research institutions, and national and local disaster management agencies are heard equally in addition to those of decision makers. International organisations must work together to prevent, prepare for and respond to health threats. To enhance this collective action, coordination mechanisms are needed at all levels to facilitate joint capacity building, knowledge sharing, investment and networking among the different important actors.

At the same time, health threats can be mitigated. Awareness campaigns can shape perceptions of risk within the local community, leading to safer practices that minimise the exposure to hazards and promote timely reporting and detection. They also contribute to fostering a culture of horizontal collaboration, with communities actively participating in prevention and response.

WOAH is committed to helping countries prevent and prepare for health threats, shifting the infectious disease control paradigm from reactive to proactive. An all-hazards and whole-of-society approach to preparedness is a shared responsibility across multiple stakeholders. Driven by this vision, we use the latest scientific evidence shared by our wide network of collaborative centres, reference labs and international experts. WOAH also promotes the role of veterinary services in global health security and their collaboration with other crucial actors.

How can we put integration first?

Fragmentation undermines the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of global systems, raising fundamental questions about how we handle infectious diseases and broader health threats, whether old and well known or new and unexpected. We have experienced first hand the negative impacts of a fragmented approach on our societies, delaying preventive actions and responses. Yet we have also witnessed the immense potential of bringing sectors together: when Covid-19 hit, testing support provided by veterinary diagnostic laboratories significantly lessened the burden on public health testing facilities. Many other collaborations have been crucial to managing this crisis.

The benefits from collaboration, including cost saving and efficiency, are unmatched. Drawing on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to keep advancing integration, which means nurturing dialogue and exploring close synergies between systems, while drawing from our own unique mandates and specific competencies. Coordinating the work of different agencies through a One Health approach is the most promising way to make the world a safer and healthier place for all.

What contribution has WOAH made to improve animal health and welfare?
What challenges remain?

Veterinary services are at the forefront of disease surveillance, prevention and control. For nearly a century, WOAH has supported countries in monitoring and controlling health threats through an approach rooted in evidence-based scientific knowledge and solidarity. Our work spans multiple functions, including developing standards and guidelines, reinforcing surveillance systems and disease intelligence, scaling up our efforts for wildlife health, and providing support to enhance the legal foundation of veterinary services work and the sustainable improvement of the capacities of national veterinary services. The major common denominator is the idea that animal health is everyone’s health.

WOAH also carries the voice of animal health through negotiation processes coordinated by the World Health Organization in developing a new legally binding pandemic instrument that guarantees political commitment for strengthening global collaboration on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

WOAH engages in long-standing coalitions with actors in the human and environmental sectors in the pursuit of One Health outcomes. With the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme and the WHO, WOAH launched the One Health Joint Plan of Action, which provides a framework to prevent and mitigate health challenges at the human-animal-plant-environment interface and address the drivers of these threats.

Science can guide transformative change, but it cannot make it happen. That requires human action and engagement alongside political buy-in. We have a solid scientific foundation for improving animal health, but we need to keep momentum to shape future health agendas and make possible the far-sighted solutions our complex ecosystem can benefit from. In all, translating theory into sustainable practice remains our biggest challenge, but with collective action we can succeed.