Urgent action for planetary health: International Health Lecture


We need to pay more attention to the health of the planet to save lives, and improve global health, now and in the future, Dr Samuel Myers said at The 2017 Academy of Medical Sciences & The Lancet International Health Lecture

Dr Samuel Myers, Principal Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Planetary Health Alliance, stressed that human impacts, such as pollution and overconsumption on Earth’s natural resources, are already intensifying almost exponentially. Action is needed to prevent this having an increasingly negative effect on human health.

Speaking at ‘The Academy of Medical Sciences & The Lancet International Health Lecture’, with the lecture published in The Lancet to coincide with the event, Dr Myers called for increased funding for planetary health science. This important area of research involves the investigation of the impacts of human activity, including pollution, overconsumption and climate change, on the health of the planet and its corresponding impacts on human health.

Dr Myers gave alarming examples of how our changing planet may pose serious risks to human health in the future, including:

  • Staple food crops growing in fields which have an environment of higher carbon dioxide levels can contain lower quantities of iron, zinc and protein. This is likely to push 150-200 million people into the onset of zinc deficiency, and a similar number into protein deficiency.
  • The decline of insect pollinators could increase global disease burden as a result of reduced intake of vitamin A, folate, and food groups such as fruit and vegetables that protect against diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A total collapse of animal pollination could result in 1.4 million excess deaths annually.
  • More frequent and dramatic extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and droughts, will likely increase forced displacement of people, increasing risk of malnutrition, infectious disease, trauma and mental illness to large populations.

Dr Myers stressed that current research funding levels are inadequate to deal with the seriousness of the issues facing us. He also said that, currently, what funding is available is distributed via disciplinary siloes or for study of individual diseases, and that this limits the ability of science to look at the bigger picture.

Dr Samuel Myers, Principal Research Scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of the Planetary Health Alliance said:

“We are already seeing significant impacts on human health from our changing planet, and this will only get worse as pollution, climate change and overconsumption increases. The challenges we face are quite unlike anything scientists have had to deal with before.

“To deal with such pressing and urgent challenges we may need a whole new science, where researchers work across traditional boundaries. Land use planners, urban designers, ecologists, civil engineers and agronomists are just as important to solve these problems as scientists, doctors, nurses and epidemiologists.

“The next generation of planetary health researchers will need to turn away from purely academic questions, looking instead to create new partnerships to address the complex challenges facing society.”

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“Humans have disrupted the natural systems of the Earth for thousands of years, but the scale of population growth and consumption in our recent history is putting an irreversible strain on our planet.

“We must open our eyes to the impact environmental pressures are already having on our health, and prepare now for what the future will bring.

“Medical science cannot act alone to solve the problems we face, we need a new breed of researcher who can work across boundaries and in large collaborations. We will need to think and work differently to deal with the health problems our changing planet is creating.”

Dr Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of The Lancet, said:

"The challenge for our species is one of survival. We have created the conditions for extraordinary human flourishing and success. But we have also sown the seeds for planetary catastrophe. Do we have the ingenuity to change course and protect the future for our children and grandchildren? The answer to that question is not certain. And time is running out to discover the answer."

Professor Frans Berkhout, Chair of the UK Future Earth Committee and Executive Dean, Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy and Professor of Environment, Society and Climate at King’s College London, said:

“Planetary Health is an important conceptual breakthrough. We are increasingly aware that human and planetary health are inextricably linked. Environmental factors explain a significant proportion of the global burden of disease. Environmental change, such as climate change, is projected to impose new and critical risks to global health. All societies depend on diverse and resilient natural resources and environmental services. We must focus research on this vital new field of science and make the argument for policies and actions to protect planetary health.”

Professor Sir Andy Haines FMedSci, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said:

“The world is witnessing dramatic environmental changes including climate change, freshwater depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss and acidification of the oceans. These threaten to undermine the advances in human health and development achieved in recent history. Planetary Health links the health of humanity to the state of natural systems and demonstrates the need to prioritise policies which can address environmental change and sustain health in the face of these challenges. The Academy of Medical Sciences & The Lancet International Health Lecture showcases the emerging evidence linking health and global environment change, showing how this transdisciplinary agenda is becoming an urgent priority for engagement by the research community.”

Dr Myers will describe how planetary health research can be deployed to solve major health challenges. For example, new decision support tools could allow policy makers in Indonesia to make better decisions about how they use land, potentially preventing deaths linked to pollution from fires used to clear peatlands. In another project, the reintroduction of native river prawns to dammed rivers in West Africa is helping control the parasitic disease schistosomiasis while also providing a nutritious food and income for local people.

Dr Samuel Myers, concluded:

“Planet Earth is both awe-inspiring and fragile. It nurtures us and all living things, but it also requires our care.”

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