Explore Currently Understood Linkages

A key component of HEAL’s approach is to explore currently understood linkages between human health and natural ecosystems.

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The HEAL consortium believes that there are important public health impacts associated with changes in the state of different ecosystems and that, frequently, degradation of these ecosystems leads to negative public health impacts. The people most likely to experience public health impacts resulting from changes in natural systems are those with the least access to traditional public health interventions. Specifically, due to geographic remoteness (that actually helps preclude ecosystem degradation), these people often live outside the reach of national development programs, including those related to health. Under some circumstances, which are not currently well understood, this lack of access to technology-based health interventions may be offset, in whole or in part, by access to more natural environmental conditions that contribute positively to health.

The published literature includes a number of case studies exploring linkages between human health and natural ecosystems, but very few actually delve into cause and effect relationships between ecosystem alteration and public health outcomes. The largely anecdotal information currently available is not sufficient for informing decision-making related to conservation, public health, or both.

A review of the literature finds important linkages between the state of ecosystems and a number of public health challenges including malnutrition, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, mental health, and the loss of biopharmaceuticals. Furthermore, research also suggests that there are significant relationships between natural systems and resilience to some types of natural disasters.

  • A hummingbird

    Ecosystem degradation has significant negative impacts on food security and nutrition globally (Richardson 2010).

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  • A hummingbird
    © Mark Atkinson, WCS

    The transmission of some communicable diseases may increase with ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss (Keesing et al. 2010).

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  • A hummingbird

    Risk factors for non-communicable diseases such as levels of physical activity can be impacted by ecosystem degradation (Toftager et al. 2011).

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  • A hummingbird

    People living near ‘greener’ environments report better mental health and lower stress levels (Maas et al. 2009).

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  • A hummingbird
    © Chris Golden

    Intact ecosystems can be important for providing protection and enhancing resilience when communities are faced with extreme events (MA 2005a).  

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  • A hummingbird

    The degradation of natural systems can result in the loss of important new biopharmaceuticals (Newman et al. 2008).

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