Nature: the health centre of tomorrow


The idea that nature and human health are closely linked seems obvious; but translating this into policy is a challenge. Green Week 2015 heard new evidence about the need for environment and health departments to work together to find solutions.

A ground-breaking report from the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Health Organisation sheds new light on the links between biodiversity and health.

We can see there’s a complex machine but we are removing pieces from that machine at an alarming rate. We wouldn’t do that to a kidney dialysis machine and expect it to still operate well.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, World Health Organisation

Presented at Green Week, the report details the complex links between ecosystems and health in the spread of infectious diseases, such as SARS, West Nile virus and Ebola, which cause millions of deaths a year. And it warns about the risks of excessive use of antibiotics on microbial diversity for the treatment of non-communicable diseases, the fastest growing health threat. Microbial diversity is vital not only to support healthy ecosystems, but also to help regulate our own immune systems. 

Importantly for policymakers, the report also underlines how contact with nature brings benefits to mental and physical health. In addition to these advantages, parks and green spaces also absorb and disperse air pollutants, lower temperatures and prevent heat stress in cities, reduce social tension, and buffer noise pollution.

From theory to practice

Braulio Dias, Executive Secretary of the CBD Secretariat, urged practitioners to use the report's findings to “promote more integrated policies bringing together environment, agriculture and health sectors, hopefully with better recognition of the role of biodiversity in supporting nutrition security and human health”.

Report author Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of the WHO warned participants about the unforeseen consequences of biodiversity loss. “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces”, he said. “That is what we are not doing. We can see there's a complex machine but we are removing pieces from that machine at an alarming rate. We wouldn't do that to a kidney dialysis machine and expect it to still operate well.”

Patrick ten Brink of the Institute for European Environmental Policy spoke of ongoing work at his institute into the health and social benefits of nature and biodiversity protection. The next step, he said, will be to look at who can do what to help, with a view to contributing a European chapter to the CBD health and nature roadmap.

Natural health service

“Protected areas are the health centres of the future”, said Ignace Schops of the EUROPARC Federation. It's an idea that is already being applied in Scotland, where a 'natural health service' is being developed to improve green spaces around health centres and hospitals to support treatment and recovery, and to promote to health practitioners the benefits of physical outdoor activity and contact with nature. Hundreds of health walking groups have now been created within treatment programmes.


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