Exeter academics author WHO “call to action” on nature, biodiversity and health

Posted on 20th May 2021

The multitude of ways in which the natural environment and human health are inextricably linked have been outlined in a document designed to help individuals and organisations across the 53 member states of the WHO European Region make evidence-based decisions.

Requested by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, and authored by experts at the University of Exeter, the review is entitled ‘Nature, Biodiversity and Health: an Overview of interconnections and priorities’. It is written by academics from the University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health, which is the WHO Collaborating Centre on Natural Environments and Health.

The document is largely aimed at people who make decisions in the health and environment sectors, yet may not have extensive experience of considering the links between the two areas.

Lead author Dr Ben Wheeler, from the University of Exeter, said: “We must do all we can to support and encourage the interdependence of the health and environment sectors. This WHO report focuses on the myriad ways that nature, biodiversity and ecosystems can support and protect our health and wellbeing. It also explores how environmental change and loss of biodiversity – from plant and animal species to microbiomes within the human gut – can threaten human health.”

The briefing encompasses three core areas:

  • Nature keeps us alive and healthy: nature can purify water, regulate air quality, and enable food production on land and in seas. It is a resource for traditional medicines and provides opportunities for new pharmaceutical discovery. The natural environment provides inspiration and settings for healthy human behaviours and social contact.
  • The environment protects our health: while nature itself can present health risks, intact, functioning and resilient nature can help to mitigate extreme events and effects of natural disasters, and limit our exposure to pathogens.
  • Environmental change in the context of social change threatens our health: processes such as climate change and loss of biodiversity are increasing extreme events, threatening ecological collapse and the failure of food systems. It is also resulting in conflict and displacement of people with consequent health impacts.

Co-author Dr Becca Lovell, of the University of Exeter, said: “Research has helped us develop a deeper understanding of the vital role that nature plays in human health. This presents us with the dual challenge of acknowledging where we have caused harm and adapting our behaviour for the benefit of all life. This briefing represents a call to arms for local and national governments to promote, support and enhance both nature and human health worldwide, considering the implication of all policymaking on the health of people and the natural world.”

The report is available at: https://www.euro.who.int/en/nature-biodiv-health

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