Global conservation agreement leads to ecosystem approach to health

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Published by on July 17, 2012 courtesy of Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Prevention is better than cure, is the message that came from governments around the world this week as countries signed up to a new approach to managing health in wetlands.

The 162 signatories to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands yesterday agreed to adopt a holistic approach to managing health at a meeting in Bucharest, Romania.

The agreement is a significant step for the One World One Health movement, which has emerged over recent decades. Made up of researchers, conservationists, health professionals and civil society, the movement recognises the complex interactions between the health of people, livestock and wildlife and advocates an approach to health based on maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Dr Ruth Cromie, WWT’s Head of Wildlife Health worked closely with Professor Pierre Horwitz of Edith Cowan University, Australia and others to draft the resolution and the accompanying guidance for putting it into practice. From Bucharest she said:

“This is a major shift towards a pragmatic, ecosystem-based approach to keeping us and the world around us healthy. Using sticking plasters to tackle diseases once they occur isn’t an effective strategy, yet it’s where the vast majority of money is spent on health.

Purple Heron © Nick Ransdale, from the surfbirds galleries.

“Now almost every country in the world has officially recognised that maintaining healthy wetlands and so preventing diseases has widespread benefits for people, for farming and for conservation.”

The approach is based on understanding why diseases emerge. Outbreaks in wetlands can almost always be tracked back ‘upstream’ to human causes such as pollution, water abstraction or introduced species. This ecosystem approach deals with disease by coordinating the response across all sectors and trying to reduce the stress factors that push people and animals towards ill-health.

Dr Cromie continued: “It is significant that the Ramsar Convention is championing this ecosystem approach because wetlands are routinely adapted for human use all around the world. Every time a natural wetland is converted to paddy fields, canalised, polluted or drained for agriculture, it hampers its ability to provide the clean water, and all the other functions that are critical to the health of all life.”

Human activities and changes to wetlands have become so widespread and substantial in recent decades that scientists have seen a sharp increase in the rate at which diseases are emerging.

For wildlife, this often results in population declines and even extinctions, as we have seen with the disease caused by chytrid fungus, which is linked to dramatic declines in amphibian species around the world and has been spread through introduced species such as American bullfrogs.

Dr Cromie continued: “When you look at these environmental problems from a health perspective you can clearly see why well functioning wetlands are so important. Clean water and healthy wetlands bring great benefits to people’s lives and help us achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

“So much power to prevent diseases lies in the hands of the wetland managers and decision makers. So we have produced a guidance manual outlining practical steps, such as disinfecting workers and equipment that travel between nature reserves to prevent the spread of infections.

“The 162 countries of the Ramsar convention have formally adopted the key messages from this manual and now we shall begin our job in making sure it a readily accessible to those on the ground and in the wetlands”

To read the Resolution click here and to read the manual click here.

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