Planetary Health in Africa: a multi-sectoral approach matters

April 7, 2022

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Associate Research Scientist

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This year’s World Health Day is marked under the theme, ‘Our planet, our health’, a reflection of the World Health Organisation’s commitment to sustainable health. This year’s theme comes with a rallying call to the people of the world to invest in creating societies focused on wellbeing and the need for urgent actions that keep people and the planet healthy. Planetary health, a fairly new concept is defined as “the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”. Planetary health stresses the interdependence of human health and environmental sustainability. More importantly, Planetary health recognizes the imperative need for collective responsibility and actions at different levels: personal, community, national, regional, global, and planetary to address the growing threats to health and wellbeing in a sustainable way.

Challenges

In their inaugural signature report on Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch in 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation and The Lancet Commission identified critical global threats and failures to sustainable health and wellbeing; including imagination, research and information and governance challenges.  While imagination challenges include a focus on today’s economic growth without considering the future negative impacts on health and the environment, research and information challenges include, but are not limited to, a paucity of transdisciplinary research and failure to address social and environmental determinants of health. On the other hand, governance challenges involve inaction and/or delayed action by governments and institutions to collectively recognize and respond to threats.

As we mark this year’s World Health Day, the African continent faces growing threats to the health and wellbeing of its populations. Amidst weak, fragmented health systems that are unable to deal with the triple burden of disease, rapidly changing weather patterns are predicted to be responsible for an additional 250,000 deaths annually as a result of heat-stress, malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea in Africa. Although it is the least contributor to climate change, Africa bears the brunt of rapidly changing weather patterns affecting safety, health, water and food security and socio-economic development. Higher rainfall and warmer temperatures favor the growth of vectors and the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, yellow and dengue fever. Such extreme weather has favored the emergence of new diseases in areas where they did not exist such as the presence of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in certain regions of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Additional threats include rapid population growth and urbanisation on the continent creating more pressure on the available resources. While there has been a universal commitment to combating climate under SDG 13, progress has been slow as exemplified by persistently high and increasing temperatures.

Call to action

We, therefore, need to renew and reinvigorate our efforts to support planetary health, by embracing collective action towards the WHO commitments to climate change and health. The workplan recognizes four main areas; partnerships, awareness-raising, science and evidence and support for the implementation of the public health response to climate change.

  • Governance

Good governance for climate change will ensure that resources are managed well for current and future populations. There is an urgent need for governments and institutions to commit to ensuring harmony between human health and environmental sustainability. While governments have committed to managing environments better through a raft of global and national agreements, more efforts are needed to ensure that policies and guidelines are acted on. This would require strategic partnerships with different stakeholders given the diverse nature of challenges and the responses needed. Given the diverse nature of challenges, multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary responses are necessary. As identified by the Rockefeller and Lancet Commission key partnerships among health professionals, research, funders, academia, the UN, governments, and Civil Society.

  • Research

Planetary health is a new concept and there is a need to grow the evidence base. Critical to building the evidence base is the need to involve communities in identifying experiences and solutions. Given that the impacts are felt by individuals, local solutions to manage natural resources and ecosystems are important to ensure sustainability. A critical component of rethinking human health and environmental sustainability is harnessing local voices, recognising them as experts. As such, bottom-up approaches through participatory research are needed to enable health professionals and governments to acquire specific competencies, enabling them to work in partnership with local initiatives. Additional research on rapid population growth and urbanization in Africa and their challenges are needed in order to identify solutions to the pressures they pose on the continent’s natural resources.

  • Advocacy

More advocacy and collaboration with existing community structures, working with young people, engaging through mainstream and social media platforms, as well as opinion leaders, is needed to create more awareness about climate change and its impacts on health, safety and socio-economic development of people. Such platforms are also needed to conduct more advocacy to raise awareness and generate more support for actions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the health and wellbeing of people. Africa’s one billion youth are a resource that needs to be harnessed to promote positive change for a sustainable planet.