One Health initiatives at the U of S

A growing awareness that the health of humans, animals and the environment are inextricably linked has sparked a flurry of activity in one of the University of Saskatchewan’s signature areas of research.

By Colleen MacPherson

One Health, a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment, was identified in 2010 as an area where the U of S has potential to develop eminence nationally and internationally, explained Dr. Bruce Reeder, professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology and co-leader of the One Health initiative. "We at the U of S have especially good capacity to move that field forward," he said, pointing to the university's full complement of health science disciplines, including veterinary medicine and its graduate schools, as well as excellent researchers and research groups in this area.

"Increasingly, human and animal public health professions are recognizing that the health issues we face are complex and interrelated, and that there are no single solutions but rather interventions need to occur at multiple levels to be effective," said Reeder, adding that about 70 per cent of emerging and re-emerging diseases are shared between animals and humans, SARS and avian influenza being two examples.

To capitalize on the university's strengths in human, animal and environmental health, Reeder and Dr. Hugh Townsend, professor of large animal medicine in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), have been seconded to the office of Karen Chad, vice-president of research and executive sponsor of the initiative, to stimulate and co-ordinate One Health activities on campus. The effort has $400,000 in core funding for the next two years from the Provost's Committee on Integrated Planning, the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Medicine and Nursing, and the Council of Health Science Deans.

But Reeder is quick to add, "the One Health initiative builds on long-standing strengths at the U of S. Our goal now is to take them to the next level."

That evolution, to taking an interdisciplinary approach to complex health issues, has brought together people from a very broad range of disciplines on campus - from the basic health sciences to law and the social sciences, he said. "When we have our faculty meetings, it's a rich array of people and we're learning each other's languages and approaches."

To stimulate even more activity, One Health has launched a research development grant program, offering four $20,000 grants to help interdisciplinary teams create programs of research that are suitable for external funding agencies, said Reeder. Four priority areas have been identified: food safety; water and health; infectious diseases shared by animals and humans; and One Health community needs and services. The deadline for submitting grant proposals is Feb. 28, said Reeder, and four more grants will be made available next year.

In addition to research, One Health at the U of S has received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council collaborative research and training grant, an initiative led by Dr. Baljit Singh of the WCMV, Dr. Volker Gerdts of VIDO and John Gordon from medicine. Over the next eight years, the grant will support the training of about 78 graduate students in problem-based solutions to complex One Health problems.

Reeder said some of the One Health core funding has been allocated to expanding the international dimension of the grad student training. Last year, 13 students from seven disciplines at four universities in Canada, Germany and India were enrolled; this year, enrolment is at 18.

"We're learning as we go," Reeder said, "adapting the curriculum to give cutting edge teaching in interdisciplinary collaborative problem solving."

At the undergraduate level, U of S faculty members from five disciplines are developing training modules that will be problem based and part of the core curriculum for the health sciences including veterinary medicine. "The idea is that students start to think in an interdisciplinary way and start to use the strengths of other disciplines."

Reeder said the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness has been an important partner in developing the training programs, and work is underway on a proposal to make both certificate programs.

Other One Health activities include recruitment for a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in integrated infectious disease mitigation. "That person and the team that comes with that person will be a great boost for One Health at the U of S." An announcement about the chair is expected before the end of the year. Also, the Canada Research Chair (CRC) oversight committee has just approved recruitment for a CRC in Infectious Disease Prediction and Control; final confirmation of the position will come from the CRC Secretariat in Ottawa.

There has also been an application submitted for a Network of Centres of Excellence, a federal government program to advance research knowledge sharing that has implications for the wellbeing of Canadians and the economy of Canada. The network, which will be based at the U of S, will involve academics, industry partners and regulatory agencies, explained Reeder. The CERC and a Network of Centres of Excellence are the largest research and training awards in the country, he noted.

Overall, Reeder believes that the One Health concept "is in the right place at the right time" for the University of Saskatchewan.

"There's considerable excitement around One Health and a growing realization that the complex problems in our world require the expertise of many disciplines and communities working together. We as researchers and teachers are increasingly recognizing the challenge of communicating across disciplines, agreeing on methods across disciplines and involving users of the knowledge; we also need to understand what communities and industry want and need.

"These are dimensions that have developed in the last 20 years and I think they're very progressive and appropriate for solving the problems we must now address."