When America’s first Ebola case turned up in Texas last fall, the oneness of our world clicked into our consciousness with new clarity. In less time than it takes to clean out your garage, a lethal virus traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on a commercial airliner. Suddenly, Ebola wasn’t just a problem to observe from a distance. It was in our backyard.
“We now have the conditions under which we could create some kind of pandemic very quickly that we would not be able to resolve,” says Princeton sociologist Miguel Centeno, an expert in global systemic risk.
“One health is the concept that the health of humans, animals and the environment are directly linked, and that the condition of one can affect the health of the others.” — position statement of the osu college of veterinary medicine
Viruses living in blood or saliva, bacteria growing in rivers or burgers, toxics spewing from smokestacks or tailpipes — these threats honor no boundaries, municipal, state or national. In even the poorest regions at home and abroad, obesity undermines wellness when fast foods and sugary drinks edge out traditional diets.
The miracles of modern medicine extend our lifespan, yet those extra years can exceed our capacity for eldercare. Cancer invades the lives of just about everyone sooner or later — a friend, a relative, you. And then there’s global climate change, which the British Medical Journal calls a “public health emergency” that will eclipse Ebola as a worldwide threat if carbon emissions don’t decline soon.
All Tangled Up
Inextricable problems require integrated solutions. “Nowadays, you cannot be successful if you work on your own,” remarks Oleh Taratula, a cancer researcher at Oregon State University. “You need people to work with you, from basic scientists all the way to the clinicians.”
That’s why OSU researchers are sloughing off old allegiances to disciplinary silos and joining forces for a healthier humanity. More than 300 investigators in fields such as microbiology, bioengineering, gerontology, veterinary medicine, nutrition, early childhood, exercise physiology, nanotechnology, rural studies, pharmacology and drug discovery are sharing labs, equipment and brainpower to diagnose, treat and prevent existing and emerging illnesses.
They are reaching across institutional boundaries, too. From the OSU “mothership” (Corvallis campus) as well as from state-of-the-art labs in the new Collaborative Life Sciences Building on Portland’s South Waterfront, they are working with researchers and clinicians at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University and the Knight Cancer Institute. Another Portland-based partner just down the river, OTRADI (Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute), is a key OSU collaborator in drug discovery and marketing.
More than 300 scientists collaborate across disciplinary boundaries.
And even state and national health-care policies are under scrutiny. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, recently granted $1.25 million to a team from OSU and the Oregon Health Authority to study Medicaid expansion, data that will help inform states and communities undergoing sweeping changes under the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (widely known as “Obamacare”).
GEMs (genetically engineered mice), zebrafish (“the new lab rats”) and complex mathematical models are essential tools for studying everything from epigenetics to “superbugs” to environmental toxics. Dogs and cats are partners, too, their common biology revealing clues to human illness through veterinary medicine. Novel “gerontechnologies” such as step-training apps to prevent falls and wearable electronic sensors to monitor gait promise more independence for elders. Creative ways to encourage kids to eat their veggies and do more exercise are on the drawing board in rural communities with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Astronauts, viewing Earth from far away, comment on the absence of lines partitioning our fragile sphere, as it hangs like a “big blue marble” in the void. That wide-angle, holistic perspective is what spurred OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences (CPHHS) — Oregon’s only public health college accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health — to launch a new international “think tank,” the Center for Global Health.
“Global health today faces many challenges shaped by a world that is increasingly interconnected,” notes center director Chunhuei Chi, an associate professor in the CPHHS. “From improving the health of mothers and children to promoting environmental sustainability, these challenges transcend regional and national boundaries.
“We need collaborative solutions that involve transnational research and action.”
Read this story in Terra Magazine.