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One Arctic, One Health: Arctic Health Challenges in an Era of Rapid Change

One Arctic, One Health: Arctic Health Challenges in an Era of Rapid Change

June 29, 2016

By Joshua Glasser and Cody Chipp

Raging wildfires. Large-scale die-offs of birds and marine mammals.  Invasions by disease-bearing ticks. Houses and water pipes collapsing as permafrost thaws. These occurrences are no longer future scenarios—they have become the daily experience of many people living in the Arctic, which is the fastest-warming region of the world.

These increasingly common events endanger environmental, animal, and human health. Birds and seals may be dying for various reasons—changing climate leading to anomalous or extreme weather events, accumulation of chemical contamination or toxins from mass blooms of algae, or even random chance. Such events should serve as a signpost directing us toward a more collaborative approach to preparedness and response. The list of stakeholders who should assume a role includes doctors, public health officers, and veterinarians as well as departments of environment and wildlife—in fact, everyone concerned about the safety and security of their homes, their families, and their food sources has a role to play. Recognition that these wide-ranging stakeholders need to work together from observation to analysis to response is known as taking a One Health approach.

The One Health approach is not new—its origins date back to pioneering epidemiologists working centuries ago, and to indigenous practices that have been around for millennia—but it is increasingly clear that One Health is a critical course of action to meet the needs of today’s challenges. The World Health Organization and many governments around the world agree on the importance of One Health, which is a cornerstone of protecting humans from emerging infectious diseases, because we know that most infectious diseases and many health risk factors come to humans from the animals and ecosystems around them.

The One Health approach has a special relevance to the Arctic, which is warming at twice the average global rate, and where many residents continue traditional subsistence ways of life.  In 2015, Ruscio et al. published an article demonstrating that the One Health approach has been at the heart of post-1945 Arctic diplomacy, and that it has deep roots in the indigenous cultures of the region. Communities could not have thrived in the Arctic for thousands of years without a comprehensive understanding of the interactions of their world and their way of living in it.

In October 2015, the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group, a subsidiary body that oversees project and research work in the Council, endorsed a One Health project.  The project leverages longstanding local traditions in order to move toward an operational, circumpolar One Health network. Since events affecting human health—wildfires, animal die-offs, tick invasions, and more—do not respect political boundaries, the systems for observing, analyzing, and responding to these events need to span across nations as well. Moreover, amid increasing international trade and travel in the region, greater capabilities for Arctic environmental observations (including local community-based observer networks as well as remotely-sensed observations), and a growing emphasis on regional development cooperation, this is an excellent time to scale up circumpolar One Health cooperation.

As a first step, the project leads conducted a survey on baseline awareness and practice of One Health among Arctic stakeholders. The survey was available online from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2016, and made use of a “chain-response” methodology, which is when respondents answer and then pass the survey link to at least three contacts. Despite limitations, such as the brief availability of the survey and the fact that it was only in English and only online, nearly 350 people from 14 countries responded. Each of the respondents had lived in, worked in, or done research in the Arctic during the previous five years. This is thought to be one of the largest regional One Health surveys of its kind, anywhere in the world.

A preliminary analysis of the responses confirmed much of the anecdotal and historical evidence collected during the development of the project proposal. The survey revealed that the One Health concept was recognized by more than half of respondents. More than two-thirds volunteered for a follow-up interview to discuss their experiences, which is an impressive and positive response for surveys of this nature. Over half were interested in knowledge exchange activities such as webinars or training courses. And finally, more than one-third expressed interest in engaging in Table Top Exercise (TTX) simulations.

At the same time, the survey demonstrated that there was room for growth for the existing resources for One Health capacity building in the region.  Less than 25 percent of respondents had received any sort of training (e.g., a course or a training workshop) on One Health and even fewer had received financial support to implement a One Health project.

With so many clearly identified needs, progress toward an operational One Health network requires broad international cooperation. In this instance, the Arctic’s diversity is a great strength. No single Arctic state, indigenous organization, or observer has all the tools to make a regional One Health network a reality. All stakeholders are affected by the impacts of rapid environmental change, and all can contribute—via resources, traditional and local knowledge, analytic skill, and/or response capability—to further develop a One Health approach in the Arctic region. The result will be a healthier, safer, better connected Arctic for the benefit all of its inhabitants—human and non-human alike.

Author’s Note:  Final data analysis is not yet complete and precise figures are subject to change; a more complete and final report of the final will be made to the Arctic Council this fall.



Joshua Glasser supports health cooperation in the Arctic as part of the U.S.delegation to the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group.

Cody Chipp serves as the co-chair of the SDWG’s Arctic Human Health Expert Group, and represents the Aleut International Association.

The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

[Photo courtesy of Brocken Inaglory]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.