Human communities may experience different levels of health depending on the levels of ecosystem degradation where they live. However, there is not a clear understanding of whether, or how, differences in ecological conditions affect human health, directly or indirectly. Types of ecosystem alteration that may result in changes in human health outcomes include:

• Deforestation and vector-borne disease  
• Soil erosion and decreases in crop yield and nutrition-based disease
• Deforestation/changes in hydrologic patterns and disease spread
• Coastal vegetation loss and flooding
• Eutrophication and food web impacts, drinking water contamination 
• Forest fires and cardio-pulmonary disease
• Habitat/resource degradation and mental health
• Loss of green space/access and mental health impacts (including implications of “no child left outside”)  
• Destruction of natural areas and impacts on recreation and exercise patterns
• Coral reef loss and vulnerability to natural disasters
• Overgrazing, desertification and dust storms, reductions in water availability
• Declines in terrestrial and aquatic wildlife populations and malnutrition 
• Catchment land cover alterations, erosion and waterborne bacterial disease (and further downstream ecological impacts)
• Loss of pollinators and impacts on food security and nutrition
• Mining/energy extraction and eco-toxicological impacts on public health
• Loss of nature-derived traditional foods, replacement with processed foods, and obesity
• Dams, irrigation, hydrological changes and resurgent parasitic and vector-borne diseases
• Land-use change, alterations of biodiversity, and vector-borne disease

Relatively little peer-reviewed literature delves into mechanisms of potential causal relationships between ecosystem alteration and public health outcomes. Policy-makers interested in understanding these relationships are left with largely anecdotal information that is clearly insufficient for informing decision-making in terms of conservation, public health, or both. Additionally, there is currently no overall framework to guide future research; nor is there a framework in which existing case studies can be placed to develop robust predictions of the potential human health effects of ecosystem alteration. This severely limits the ability of both the conservation and public health communities to search for settings in which conservation and pubic health might combine resources and collaborate on policy interventions to address shared objectives.

HEAL’s applied research program will address these knowledge gaps through rigorous scientific inquiry, seeking to more comprehensively characterize the conditions under which ecosystem degradation negatively impacts human health. The principal purpose of this consortium-based research approach is thus to test whether and under what conditions 'health' can be considered an ecosystem-provided benefit. Innovative research strategies will need to be underpinned by a melding of ecological, epidemiological, social and economic approaches and tools.  

The HEAL program modules have been designed to evaluate what appear to be key linkages at the interface between health and the environment, to address knowledge gaps surrounding the relationships between (for example):

  • A hummingbird
    © Chris Golden

    Access to wildlife and human nutrition: Subsistence hunters’ sustainable access to wildlife and children’s nutritional needs (especially in the first thousand days for cognitive and physical development).

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  • A hummingbird

    Catchment management and waterborne bacterial disease / coral reef health: Upland deforestation and erosion on islands like Fiji and waterborne diarrheal diseases such as typhoid in children, and downstream coral reef health and productivity.

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  • A hummingbird

    Land-use change and malaria: Deforestation patterns and malaria in the Amazon and other major forest systems.

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  • A hummingbird
    AP Photo / Geoff Spencer

    Fire-based land management and cardiopulmonary disease: Fires used to clear land in Sumatra and smoke-related cardiopulmonary illness in the broader downwind Southeast Asian “healthshed”.

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  • A hummingbird

    Marine protected areas and community well-being: Community access to marine protected areas, food security, income to purchase health services, and the psychological dimensions of having a “sense of place” related to secure coastal resource tenure.

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