Reaching Common Ground and Improving Our Impact

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Feb 03, 2020
by Claire Kidwell
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Reaching Common Ground and Improving Our Impact

ECDC division head Jan C. Semenza discusses One Health and being part of a bigger system Jan C. Semenza (second from right) at Salzburg Global Seminar

Jan C. Semenza is the head of the scientific assessment section at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). He attended the second joint program between Salzburg Global Seminar and Ending Pandemics, Finding Outbreaks Faster: Metrics for One Health Surveillance. In an extended Q&A with Salzburg Global, he discusses One Health, the importance of the environment in global health, and his hopes for the future in regards to ending pandemics.

Salzburg Global: What does One Health mean to you?

Jan C. Semenza: One Health is trying to have a holistic view of the world as we know it because humans have carved it out into different disciplines. But in reality, we are all part of this big system, and these divisions are artificial. We have organized ourselves along different disciplines and along different domains of expertise, which is completely, totally artificial. And One Health aims to bridge those visible divides and bring people to the table to discuss the complexity of the world that we live in and consider humans that live in an environment and animals all interconnected in an interdependent way.

So One Health is a new approach where one breaks the silos and reaches out to other disciplines and content. Just the fact that it’s not just humans that matter, it’s also animals that matter, it is the environment that matters, you name it, insects, we’re all part of a system, and we’re all interdependent [and] interconnected. And that’s what we need to think about.

SG: Why do you think it’s taken so long for the environment to be included in One Health conversations?

JCS: We in the West have had the reductionist approach to looking at the world where we have isolated ourselves from our surroundings. It goes way back into our religious background. Division of mind and body where one separates as if we were two different entities.

But other cultures do not consider themselves different from the or distinct from the environment. If you think about Native American cultures that they are much more integrated, and they consider themselves part of the bigger whole of earth.

SG: You and your team at the ECDC developed models to predict possible pandemics using environmental data. If you were to explain these models to anyone on the street, what would you say?

JCS: We at the European CDC are concerned about human health, obviously, but we do take into consideration other factors also. One of those issues is the environment, and we are trying to monitor changes in the environment that have an impact on human health.

Specifically, we are monitoring climatic and/or meterological conditions to see if those have an impact on human health. Because we have shown that changes in sea surface temperature in the Baltic Sea, for example, can predict the environmental suitability of these infections from bacteria that live in marine environments. They’re called Vibrio bacteria, but those are very dangerous bacteria that can cause wound infections, diarrhea, or blood poisoning, and some of these diseases are very dangerous and potentially fatal.

So we are monitoring these environmental conditions in order to prevent people from getting exposed to these bacteria and prevent people from getting sick by going to the beach when they’re not supposed to because there are too many toxic bacteria in the marine environment.  

SG: What sort of challenges do you see the One Health mindset facing in the future?

JCS: Philosophically, that we humans believe that we are in the center of the world and that we are the only ones that matter. And so that’s a conceptual problem because that will not help us solve all these issues. So One Health struggles with the fact that experts are trained in a certain discipline and nobody has been trained to think outside of that domain.

So connecting with people from different disciplines is very difficult because you speak a different language. We produce our reports in different journals. And we are divided by methods and the way of looking at [the] world and on and on. There are so many things that divide us, and we don’t seem to be able to look at the things that we have in common.

There are lots of issues in society like that. People tend to look at things that divide people instead of the things that people have in common and that they share. And it’s just a conscious decision that we need to shift our focus from what divides us to what brings us together and what’s the common ground for what we stand on.  

SG: Have you seen this common ground during this program?

JCS: Here at... Salzburg [Global] Seminar it was different in that we had a lot of ecologists that were at the table that know the environment very well. I do environmental epidemiology, but I’m more on the human health side also. But we are trying to bring the veterinarians, human health epidemiologists, and then the ecologists and environmental people to the same table to come up with an approach and a way of thinking about this that’s more inclusive and more comprehensive. And we’ll have a much bigger impact than approaching these problems from a singular perspective…We were able to communicate in ways that I hadn’t imagined and come to a common ground; it was encouraging.

For a summary of the program, download our 12-page newsletter, featuring illustrations, interviews, and insights.


The Salzburg Global Seminar Program, Finding Outbreaks Faster: Metrics for One Health Surveillance, is part of the Finding Outbreaks Faster multi-year series. This series and program is held in partnership with Ending Pandemics.