World Health Day for a Healthy World

In mother nature’s drugstore

A little headache from last night’s party? Just have a quick asprin and you will feel better in no time. The box is empty and the pharmacy closed? No need to worry. A short stroll in the close by forest will do the trick. Even if you do not see the painkiller pills growing on the tree, be sure they are there: A tiny bit of the bark and leaves of a willow tree, et voilà, your headache should be gone. Already some 400 years BC the Greek Hippocrates knew about this trick, becoming the father of Aspirin, and by the way, modern medicine. The first records of traditional remedies, such as the oils of cedar, cypress, licorice, myrrh and poppy, date back even further, to 2600 BC, and they are still being used today.

Once you are in nature’s own pharmacy you might as well stay for some more shopping. How about some microbes, such as Penicillin, the almost exclusive source of all antibiotics? Or some Artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant, the most effective anti-malarial drug used today? The latest thing: Paclitaxel from the Pacific Yew tree, used in treating breast, ovarian, and other cancers. Maybe some venom of the cone snail C. magus, called ziconotide, 1000 times more potent than morphine, but not addictive? This shopping list could go on and on.

And the best thing about it, mother nature will not even send a bill for this treasure chest of medicine, unlike every other pharmaceutical company – even though her profit could be overwhelming: Natural products have been the source of more than 60% of new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the past three decades, while undiscovered cancer treatments from marine organisms alone could be worth between jaw-dropping US $563 billion and $5.69 trillion, according to a recent study. Take the example of the mentioned cone snails whose 140,000 substances show potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and heart attacks.

Losing before Discovering

So far only 100 of these substances have been characterized, while the very source of these valuable animals is at peril. In Southeast Asia alone, where more than half of the marine cone snail species live, around 90% of coral reefs are threatened. 50% of mangroves have already been destroyed worldwide. This is symptomatic for the global biosphere undergoing dramatic changes. Rates of species loss are occurring at a rate 1000 times faster than before humans walked the earth, putting at least 50% of all species alive today at risk of extinction within the next century.

Such onslaught on biodiversity means that we are losing, before discovery which might eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the natural drugstore.

In the Mall of Biodiversity

Apart from medicine, what else do we need to stay healthy? Let us continue shopping in the mall of biodiversity. Next to the pharmacy we find the grocery store with food shelves filled to the top, thanks to biodiversity. Diverse ecosystems play a crucial role in human nutrition, as they ensure the sustainable productivity of soils and provide the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Access to sufficient nutritious variety of food is clearly a fundamental determinant of health.

On the way we also should get some vaccinations against a whole range of infectious diseases. Intact and diverse ecosystems provide an important natural control and thus prevention from the emergence and spread of diseases in animals, plants and humans. These include expensive livestock illnesses, zoonotic outbreaks and global pandemics. In contrast, human impacts on biodiversity, such as deforestation, land-use change or water management helped the recent infamous outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, avian influenza or malaria.

Some pampering for our social, cultural and spiritual health? No problem, a stop at the park will fix this. Access to greenspace has been associated with improved health outcomes, shorter hospital visits, reduced anti-social behavior, or diseases of affluence such as diabetes or obesity. Next door there is an insurance agency where we can get a low-cost insurance against all kinds of natural disasters threatening our health and well-being: Some mangroves as tsunami protection, a forest to prevent landslide and a wetland to buffer floods. That should do.

Climate Change Insurance on the Cheap

Wait a minute, there is a promotion for a climate change insurance, provided by nature in the form of diverse and thus resilient ecosystems. This comes in handy, since the planet warms gradually, but the effects of extreme weather events – more storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves – will be abrupt and acutely felt, all certainly not good for our health.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) points out five major health consequences of climate change:

First, rising temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods can compromise food security. Malnutrition, much of it caused by periodic droughts, is already responsible for an estimated 3.5 million deaths each year.

Second, more frequent extreme weather events mean more potential deaths and injuries caused by storms and floods. These are often followed by outbreaks of diseases, such as cholera, especially when water and sanitation services are damaged or destroyed.

Third, both scarcities of water, essential for hygiene, and contaminated excess water will increase diarrheal disease, already accounting for about 1.8 million deaths each year.

Fourth, heatwaves, can directly increase morbidity and mortality, mainly in elderly people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease. 2003’s heatwave for instance had a terrifying death toll of 70,000 in Europe alone.

Finally, changing temperatures and patterns of rainfall are expected to alter the geographical distribution of insect vectors that spread infectious diseases, like malaria and dengue.

A Smart Investment for Climate Change in Southeast Asia

Living in Southeast Asia such a climate insurance is particularly important, since the region will be affected way above average. Decreasing fresh water, rising sea levels, increasing floods and storms, and intensifying risks of hunger and diseases render the Philippines for example the third most threatened nation by climate change worldwide.

In a nut shell, global warming is likely to compromise all the invaluable health services, we have window-shopped before. Thus our climate change insurance seems like a smart investment. However, as with any other insurer, the insurance premium will depend on our preload. An unhealthy lifestyle such as smoking or drinking will increase the risk for our health and thus the extent of the premium. Accordingly, deforestation, oil spills or CO2 emissions can and should be set against the value of intact nature. The better we treat our ecosystems, the lower will be the premium, the safer will be the protection against climate change impacts and the better will be the consequences for our health. It is time for action.

Healthy Planet, Healthy People

Today’s World Health Day sponsored by the WHO and marking the anniversary of its First World Health Assembly in 1948, can be seen as a call for such action. ‘While the reality of climate change can no longer be doubted, the magnitude of consequences, and — most especially for health — can still be reduced’, says Dr. Chan. Protecting human health needs to be anchored at the heart of the global climate change and biodiversity agenda.

Act Locally Think Globally for a Better Health

This can start at the local level, where traditional knowledge plays an important role, not only for natural medicine but also for sustainable agriculture and food security. Climate change mitigation, happening on the ground, offers many win-win opportunities for enhancing population health. Take the example of the Philippines Department of Education which is mainstreaming climate change education into its public school curriculum.

Regionally and internationally, consideration of the health impact of climate change can help political leaders move with appropriate urgency, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s puts it. ‘We must respond with urgent action to stabilize the climate, achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and encourage individual action’. The project BiodivHealthSEA, for example, focuses on local impacts and perceptions of global changes in health and biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

Another regional initiative is the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, coordinating sustainable biodiversity management. Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change, as well as health.

The project takes the good health as a precious commodity seriously. Following the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity approach (TEEB), i.e. demonstrating the economic and social value of ecosystem services, such as health, raises awareness and informs management and policy decisions. To sum up, we need to make invisible health and insurance services visible – economically tangible.

In comparison, this year wealthy nations will donate more than 13 billion euros to procure food and medicines, to improve sanitation and freshwater access for the worlds poorest. As we have seen, other investments may be just as valuable, if not more so, for ensuring health and well-being. There may be no greater strategic investment in health than in the protection of biodiversity and climate.

Health is our most basic human right and one of the most important indicators of sustainable development. Without an intact eco and climate system we may end up paying the hidden price for nature’s health services – giving us a much bigger headache than last night’s party.

First published on Monday, 1.4.2013, Asean Centre for Biodiversity written by Philipp Gassner

Also published on Saturday, 06 April 2013 17:03 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror