EcoHealth is bringing together physicians, veterinarians, ecologists, economists, social scientists, planners and others to comprehensively study and understand how ecosystem changes are negatively impacting human health. EcoHealth strives to provide innovative, practical solutions to reduce or reverse the negative health impacts of ecosystem change.
EcoHealth studies differ from traditional, single discipline studies. A traditional epidemiological study may show increasing rates of malaria in a region, but not address how or why the rate is increasing. An environmental health study may recommend the spraying of a pesticide in certain amounts in certain areas to reduce spread. An economic analysis may calculate the cost and effectiveness per dollar spent on such a program. An EcoHealth study uses a different approach. It brings the multiple specialist disciplines together with members of the affected community before the study begins. Through pre-study meetings the group shares knowledge and adopts a common language. These pre-study meetings often lead to creative and novel approaches and can lead to a more “socially robust” solution. EcoHealth practitioners term this synergy transdisciplinarity, and differentiate it from multidiscipline studies. EcoHealth studies also value participation of all involved groups, including decision makers and believe issues of equity (between gender, socioeconomic classes, age and even species) are important to fully understand the problem to be studied. Jean Lebel (2003) termed transdisciplinarity, participation and equity the three pillars of EcoHealth.
A short example of a transdisciplinary study in the field of EcoHealth appears below. This is excerpted from HEALTH: An Ecosystem Approach, by Jean Lebel. (IDRC 2003, ISBN 1-55250-012-8).
“In Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, close to 24 000 of the 2.4 million people who caught malaria every year died as a result. Massive use of the powerful insecticide DDT was the linchpin of the government's effort to eradicate the disease. Over time, some progress was made against malaria, but the war was far from won. The use of DDT also posed its own threats to the health of the ecosystem. Moreover, as required by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had to completely eliminate the use of DDT by 2002. To meet this challenge, an EcoHealth research project was set up to pool the knowledge of a team of specialists in epidemiology, computer science, entomology, and social sciences, from both government and academia. This team has accumulated volumes of information about the prevalence of malaria in 2 000 villages. Data from powerful geographical information systems enabled them to conclude that mosquitoes do not travel very much. "If you have a place to lay your eggs and feed yourself, why go elsewhere?" explains Mario Henry Rodriguez, Director of Research on Infectious Diseases at the National Institute for Public Health (NIPH). In addition, as confirmed by Juan Eugenio Hernández, NIPH's Director of Informatics, it is now believed that "human beings are the vectors of malaria," which explains why more cases of malaria are found in villages located alongside roads.” With community help, the team studied the population's living conditions, including behavioural differences between men and women. It was found that while women are more likely to be bitten by mosquitoes early in the morning when they go to fetch water, the men are likely to be bitten in the coffee plantations at night. Several preventive actions have been taken. The scientists have proposed a new insecticide that, unlike DDT, does not persist in the environment. They have also developed a more effective pump that can spray 40 homes a day instead of 8, and uses less insecticide. A new malaria testing kit now detects the presence or absence of parasites in a patient's blood in only a few minutes, unlike laboratory tests that take three to four weeks to confirm a diagnosis. Previously, the need to wait for test results forced the authorities to treat everyone who showed vague symptoms of the illness, such as a high fever or headaches. Now, volunteers administer these tests to the people in close to 60 villages. "We have given communities the means to take care of themselves," says Mario Rodriguez. The fight against malaria in Mexico is now no longer solely the responsibility of government employees. Women also play a role by removing, every two weeks, the algae that harbour mosquito larvae in bodies of water. As a result, the number of cases of malaria in the state of Oaxaca has dropped from 15 000 in 1998 to only 400 today — and all without using any DDT. "Our experience has taught us that we need to bolster the social science research component if we want to extend this program to other parts of the country, while maintaining it in Oaxaca. The challenge is to draw the lessons that will lead to application of the program on a much wider scale," says Dr Rodriguez.”This study reveals both the nature of the complex interactions of the problem and the extent to which a successful solution must cross research disciplines. The solution involved creative thinking on the part of many individuals, and produced a win-win situation for researchers, business and most importantly, for the community. Although many of the dramatic effects of ecosystem change and much of the research is focused in developing countries, the ecosystem of the built environment in urban areas of the developed world is also a major determinant of human health. Obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease are all directly related to how humans interact with the local urban ecosystem in which they live. Urban design and planning determine car use, food choices available, air pollution levels and the safety and walkability of the neighborhoods in which people live. Other examples of the EcoHealth approach can be found in Linking Social and Ecological Systems: Management Practice and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience, edited by Fikrit Berkes and Carl Folke (1998, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-59140-6) and Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, edited by Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling (2002, Island Press, ISBN 1-55963-856-7).