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As One Health climbs the political agenda, civil society must have a seat at the table

First published on BOND website on 08/06/21

Carine Bambara, Senior Manager, Global External Affairs at Brooke, discusses the need for civil society input in the formation of One Health policies.

It feels like we’re at a crucial point in history, where more groups than ever before are talking about One Health. In May alone, there has been:

  • The announcement of One Health High-Level Expert Panel to advise FAO, OIE, UNEP and WHO on the development of an action plan to stop zoonotic disease
  • A declaration from the G20 Global Health Summit, which says that investment in One Health is a global public good
  • A call for an international pandemic treaty that includes recognition of a One Health approach at the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), and agreement to discuss this at a special session of the WHA in November
  • A resolution passed at WHA, putting One Health at the centre of strengthening the World Health Organisation’s preparedness for and response to health emergencies
  • A resolution passed at the 88th OIE General Assembly on how OIE can support its members to put One Health into practice by addressing weaknesses in the animal health system

There is huge momentum and political commitment to the concept. But we need to make sure the words on paper are fit for purpose, and that this political will turns into action on the ground.

Animal health systems remain the weakest link in the global health system – more than 75% of all new human infectious diseases come from animals – but we now have a chance to change this. And time is of the essence, as the next pandemic could be just around the corner.

A potential new international pandemic treaty must explicitly address prevention of pandemics by stopping the spread of disease from animals to humans. Like our allies at the PREZODE initiative have said, prevention of zoonotic disease costs 100 times less than trying to respond once a disease has spread.

If this new instrument takes the form of a legally-binding framework convention, there will be the opportunity to bring in broad principles to stop the spread from animals to humans, and add specific targets and more detailed protocols to strengthen animal health systems as a part of One Health.

To ensure commitment to animal health, civil society needs to be at the centre of discussions about the content of a new instrument, as well as all the other processes mentioned above. We are at the grassroots of where the problems are and know the impact of ill-equipped animal health systems like no one else. Without us in discussions, vital components of strengthening the global health system could be missed.

It’s our responsibility too, to make sure that member states understand the importance of animal health to One Health, and that they bring this to the special World Health Assembly in November, and other international assemblies, where the above processes are discussed. Member states need to inform their own positions by consulting with those working in human health, animal health, and planetary health – including civil society, as well as people at the grassroots who feel the impact of pandemics the most.

There is definitely appetite and will to implement One Health programmes, but often the lack of long-term funding is a barrier. If governments and international agencies are serious about One Health, there must be significant funding made available. The upcoming G7 meeting provides the perfect opportunity to make this happen. We need investment from G7 countries with the inputs of countries most at risk of the effect of pandemics.

Governments must remember that we need to make the current system work better by linking up human health, animal health, and the health of our planet to not just deal with an outbreak of zoonotic disease when it happens, but to prevent it at its very source. With the number of processes and discussions going on around One Health and how to fund it, we must make sure that all these processes are joined up otherwise we risk duplication. That means, for instance, discussions about a pandemic treaty in particular must involve the OIE, FAO, UNEP and others too, to make sure that it protects animals and our planet as well as human health.

Strengthening animal health systems to prevent zoonotic disease really is a global public good. Not only will it secure global public health, it will also improve food security, and poverty reduction – not to mention animal health and welfare itself. The time for action is now.

The Action for Animal Health coalition is calling on governments and international agencies to invest in animal health systems strengthening as a part of putting One Health into practice. Add your organisation’s signature to our call-to-action here