Symposium Highlights Ecosystem Approaches to Health

February 17, 2009 - Campus Bulletin

From emerging infectious diseases and climate change to issues of food security and water quality, there are many factors that influence health and an emerging field of study in Canada is developing a holistic approach to tackling these complex challenges.

“New global problems require new ways of thinking and doing,” said the University of Guelph’s Prof. David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian and epidemiologist in the Department of Population Medicine. “But how can such new approaches find homes in academic and public institutions built to respond to very different challenges?”

Waltner-Toews and his colleagues attempt to answer that question this week as U of G brings together Canadian scholars and professionals developing a national program of education and research that links ecological thinking with social change, justice and health. The concept, called ecohealth, evolved out of the recognition that human health and well-being depend on the health of non-human creatures and the ecosystem as a whole.

Members of the community are invited to learn more about eco-health and the people driving the initiative at a one-day symposium on Wednesday that runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the OVC Lifetime Learning Centre Room 1714. With input from a variety of perspectives, including human health, veterinary medicine, the social sciences and humanities, the dialogue kicks off two days of national team meetings to lay the groundwork for a recognized graduate-level course in ecohealth.

The meeting builds on steps taken in 2007, when the International Development Research Centre provided nearly $1 million to help launch a Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health-Canada (CoPEH-Can). With partners at U of G, the University of British Columbia and the University of Quebec at Montreal, the CoPEH-Can launched an 11-day short course that rotates each summer among the three universities. The course will take place in Guelph this summer.

The next step is to upgrade the course to the graduate level and make it part of the universities’ health curricula.
U of G members of the CoEPH-Can team are Waltner-Toews and Profs. Bruce Hunter, Pathobiology, and Karen Houle, Philosophy.

“When you’re looking at a human health problem, you have to consider how humans interact with their environment and the animals they share it with, as well as the impact of social, economic and cultural practices,” said Waltner-Toews. “But where does that sort of multidisciplinary course fit in the curriculum? It needs a home in a department. And that’s a challenge, especially at a time when belts are tightening and departments are trying to protect their core courses.”

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