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May 2, 2023

Responding To: Georgetown Reflects on CUGH 2023: "Global Health at a Crossroads: Equity, Climate Change and Microbial Threats"

Interdisciplinary Dialogues: Global Health Needs More Veterinarians

Jake Lang (SFS‘25)

A focal point of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health 2023 Conference (CUGH) was the Great Global Health Debate. When it was time for audience members to offer their input, a veterinarian from India proudly raised her voice and pointed out what was missing from the morning’s debate. As Agnes Soucat, head of the division of health and social protection at Agence Francaise de Developpement, and Soji Adeyi, president of Resilient Health Systems and former director of health, population and nutrition at the World Bank, debated expanding the scope of global health practice, they overlooked a key consideration: animal health.

The veterinarian’s impassioned plea to think more holistically about human health inspired me to attend a plenary session entitled “Addressing the Triple Crisis: Climate Change, Biodiversity Losses & Pollution.” The speakers were experts and practitioners in planetary health who are leading the charge to shift the paradigm away from short-sighted anthropocentric models of well-being. Although the panelists framed their arguments from diverse disciplinary perspectives, they all made the case that humans are not situated at the system’s center, but rather are just a component of it.

For example, Dr. Pushpam Kumar, chief economist at the United Nations Environment Programme called upon economists to integrate sustainability into conventional statistics on production, consumption, and economic growth. Dr. Kumar argued that country measurements of national income are illusionary; though higher GDP correlates with better health, states often amass health at nature’s expense. Inclusive wealth measurements, on the other hand, include natural capital in the calculus and more accurately capture sustainability considerations than GDP alone.

Another panelist, similar to the veterinarian who spoke at the question and answer session of the debate, brought a very different perspective to the planetary health discussion than her economist colleague. During her brief remarks, Dr. Sharon Deem, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the St. Louis Zoo, provided three key takeaways certainly worth reporting. First, she pointed out that just 10,000 years ago, human beings represented only 2% of all terrestrial vertebrates on the planet; today, we make up 98%. According to Dr. Deem, the biggest challenge associated with this explosion is the problem of feeding 8 billion people and counting. How we interact with the land and produce the food we consume is a central driver of emerging zoonoses. Dr. Deem’s second point was that wildlife are not culprits. Rather, changing anthropogenic interactions has led to an increase in spillover events in humans. Third, Dr. Deem reinforced the key message that biodiversity is inextricably linked to human health. Specifically, protected natural ecosystems actually deliver human health services by acting as a sink for preventing pathogenic spillovers.

Ultimately, this interdisciplinary exchange between Drs. Deem, Kumar, and others was a shining example of what global health dialogues ought to look like if we dare succeed at mitigating multifaceted threats to planetary health. Mainstream disciplines need to loosen their grip on the discourse and allow unconventional voices to take center stage. Among many surprising takeaways from the CUGH conference, where I attended talks on everything from global mental health to pharmaceutical market shaping, one lesson stands out. Veterinarians—and other unexpected voices—might be best suited to integrate a planetary health framework in platforms that cling to outdated definitions of global health.

Jake Lang (SFS‘25) is an undergraduate student majoring in science, technology and international affairs and Mortara Undergraduate Research Fellow at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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