Oct 25 2017 Posted: 13:44 IST

Better understanding of the disease connections between human health, animal health and environmental health is important if lethal disease pandemics are to be prevented in the future. This was the key message at a conference hosted by the Irish Forum for International Agricultural Development, co-founded by NUI Galway, at the Department of Foreign Affairs this week. The inter-connectedness of human health, agriculture, wildlife and the environment was the focus of the event, which was held to mark World Food Day.

In his opening remarks, Professor Charles Spillane, Vice-Chair of IFIAD and Director of the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, said: “Many diseases which infect livestock or wild animals can also infect humans. Such zoonotic diseases pose a major threat to global health. While measures are necessary to find vaccines or treatments against such diseases, integrated development and public health programs are necessary to limit the transmission frequency of zoonotic agents from animals to humans. Well-meaning development programs can inadvertently change the transmission dynamics of such diseases or aggravate the problem of antimicrobial resistance amongst disease-causing organisms”

Entitled ‘Agriculture in the Delivery of One Health’ the IFIAD event brought together international development experts, health practitioners, animal scientists, agriculturalists, government representatives, and representatives from international development organisations to promote ‘One Health’, a recognition that the health of humans is often directly connected to the health status of animals. Speakers at the conference included representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Dr Delia Grace, Programme Manager at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya.

The Ryan Institute’s Centre for Health From Environment (CHE) at NUI Galway has a range of ‘One Health’ research activities underway. In the panel discussion at the IFIAD event, Professor Martin Cormican, Head of the CHE at NUI Galway and HSE national lead on anti-microbial resistance, stressed the importance of addressing the challenges facing Ireland and developing countries in relation to anti-microbial resistance which is rendering many antibiotics useless.

Professor Cormican said: “Properly used antibiotics have been wonder drugs. In the last century they were called ‘magic bullets’ because in a very ill patient antibiotics like penicillin were literally like magic, they precisely hit a lethal target in the bacteria. As doctors, vets and citizens, we have used thousands of tonnes of antibiotics for all sorts of things as if they were a cheap and cheerful solution to all our problems. Today, antibiotic resistance means that many of those magic bullets that we had when I left medical school 30 years ago are now like shooting blanks because the targets have changed. Worse still it turns out there is a lot less magic than we hoped and we have not found many new bullets.”

“All this mess we have made with antibiotics has come to a head and we now have a global epidemic of bugs that live in the gut of humans and animals. They spread silently between human, animals, water and soil, they are harmless when you are fit and well but when people are at their most vulnerable they can escape from the gut and cause infections that can be impossible or almost impossible to treat. The good news is that even now if we all buy into ‘One Health’ and work together, we can slow down and limit the damage as some other countries have done. But time is short because these bugs are getting more common in people and we have already found them in the water and just like rhododendron, Japanese knot weed or zebra mussels, once these invasive species are established in Ireland there will be no way back”, cautioned Professor Cormican.

Members of the Ryan Institute’s Centre for Health From Environment are working closely with counterparts internationally and nationally, including Teagasc on antimicrobial resistance in agri-food systems. A number of research teams within the CHE were recently part of a successful bid for a new One Health European Joint Programme worth €90 million.

Dr Lance O’Brien of Teagasc and Chair of IFIAD, said: “Six out of ten infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. The issue of ‘One Health’ is therefore critically important to the farming sector, the health profession, research organisations, and agencies involved in development work overseas. In Ireland, we must first of all recognise this, and then take steps to work together more closely. We in Ireland know only too well about the links between livestock and infections such as TB and BSE in the human population. Overseas, infections that have spread from animals to humans, including Avian flu, Salmonella, Lassa Fever, Nipah Virus, Lyme disease, Ebola and of course HIV, have caused large numbers of fatalities.”

Agricultural specialist at Gorta-Self Help Africa, Paul Wagstaff, said that the ‘One Health’ issue was hugely important for Irish organisations working in developing countries too, as agencies needed to be acutely aware that increased farm production and sustainable agricultural intensification needed to be approached in a manner that does not have knock-on implications for human health further down the line.

The Irish Forum for International Agricultural Development (IFIAD) is a voluntary organisation that brings together representatives from Irish agriculture, the agri-food sector, academia and international development to share knowledge and good practices for the benefit of agricultural development programming and policy in support of Ireland’s development objectives. NUI Galway is a founding member of IFIAD.

For more details, visit: www.ifiad.ie

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