Team of Profs Develops National Ecohealth Course

April 15, 2008 - News Release

Professors from three Canadian universities, including the University of Guelph, are teaming up to design a first-of-its-kind course in ecohealth.

This emerging field of study promotes taking a more holistic approach to solving complex human, animal and environmental issues.

Backed by a $1-million grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), professors from Guelph, the University of British Columbia and Université du Québec à Montréal have formed the Canadian Community of Practice in Ecohealth initiative. They will work together to design and operate the 11-day course, which will be offered annually and rotate among the three universities.

The initiative includes U of G professors Bruce Hunter, Department of Pathobiology; Karen Houle, Department of Philosophy; and David Waltner-Toews, Department of Population Medicine.

"Ecohealth has developed in response to the recognition that human health and well-being are embedded in the health of the ecosystem," said Hunter. "When you focus on a human health problem, you have to consider how humans interact with animals and their environment. and the problem is influenced by a wide range of other critical factors, including socio-economic factors and cultural and spiritual practices. Effective solutions come from looking at the big picture."

An example of the importance of this approach occurred in a certain area of South America where there was an abnormally high number of children with learning disabilities, he said. At first it was assumed to be the result of exposure to heavy metal from a nearby mine. But as investigations stretched into the local industry, environmental and cultural practices, it was found that deforestation was responsible for heavy-metal movement from the soils into the water, causing mercury levels in certain fish species to rise, said Hunter. People in the area were eating this particular kind of fish at certain times of the year, and chronic mercury toxicity was causing their children to develop learning disabilities.

"The environment, land use, people's diets and culture were all part of the solution," he said. "This approach can be applied to local problems as well. For example, if a veterinarian is trying to diagnose a health problem in a cow, he or she should also look at the health of the entire farm, including management practices from animal housing to how the manure and barnyard runoff are handled to the air quality in the barn."

The first course will be offered Aug. 5 to 15 in Vancouver. Guelph will host it in 2009, and Quebec in 2010.

"Over the next two years, the course will be upgraded to become an accepted graduate-level course within each of the universities," said Hunter.

In conjunction with the training program, the team of professors is also launching scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $17,000 to support graduate students attending the course and to supplement field research that embraces an ecosystem approach.

"It's a way of building the capacity of people interested in this area of study," he said.

This year, 25 graduate students and five professionals will be accepted into the course, with many working in the health fields, he said.

In addition to designing the course, the professors are building a community network of Canadian academics and researchers who have expertise in ecohealth, with the aim of influencing future research, education and public policy.

For more information about the initiative.

Bruce Hunter
Department of Pathobiology
519-824-4120, Ext. 54625

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

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