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World Health Day: In Mother Nature’s drugstore

HAVING a little headache from last night’s party? A quick aspirin will make you feel better in no time. The box is empty and the pharmacy closed? Don’t worry. A short stroll to the nearby forest will do the trick. A tiny bit of the bark and leaves of a willow tree, et voilà, your headache should be gone!

Already some 400 years B.C., the Greek Hippocrates knew about this trick, becoming the father of aspirin, and by the way, modern medicine.

The first records of traditional remedies, such as the oils of cedar, cypress, licorice, myrrh and poppy, date back even further, to 2600 B.C., and they are still being used today.

Once you are in nature’s own pharmacy, you might as well stay for some more shopping. How about some microbes, such as penicillin, the almost exclusive source of all antibiotics? Or some artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant, the most effective anti-malarial drug used today?

The latest thing: Paclitaxel from the Pacific Yew tree used in treating breast, ovarian and other cancers. Maybe some venom of the cone snail C. magus, called ziconotide, 1,000 times more potent than morphine, but not addictive? This shopping list could go on and on.

And the best thing about it, Mother Nature will not even send a bill for this treasure chest of medicines, unlike every other pharmaceutical company—even though her profit could be overwhelming.

Natural products have been the source of more than 60 percent of new drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the past three decades, while undiscovered cancer treatments from marine organisms alone could be worth between jaw-dropping $563 billion and $5.69 trillion, according to a recent study.

Take the example of the cone snails mentioned earlier whose 140,000 substances show potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and heart attack.


Losing before discovery

SO far only 100 of these substances have been characterized, while the very source of these valuable animals is at peril. In Southeast Asia alone, where more than half of the marine cone snail species live, around 90 percent of coral reefs are threatened.

Fifty percent of mangroves have already been destroyed worldwide. This is symptomatic for the global biosphere undergoing dramatic changes.

Rates of species loss are occurring at a rate of 1,000 times faster than before humans walked the earth, putting at least 50 percent of all species alive today at risk of extinction within the next century.

Such onslaught on biodiversity means that we are losing, before discovery, which might eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the natural drugstore.


In the mall of biodiversity

APART from medicine, what else do we need to stay healthy? Let us continue shopping in the mall of biodiversity.

Next to pharmacy, we find the grocery store with food shelves filled to the top, thanks to biodiversity. Diverse ecosystems play a crucial role in human nutrition, as they ensure the sustainable productivity of soils and provide the genetic resources for all crops, livestock and marine species harvested for food.

Access to sufficient nutritious variety of food is clearly a fundamental determinant of health.

On the way, we also should get some vaccinations against a whole range of infectious diseases. Intact and diverse ecosystems provide an important natural control and, thus, prevention from the emergence and spread of diseases in animals, plants and humans. These include expensive livestock illnesses, zoonotic outbreaks and global pandemics.

In contrast, human impacts on biodiversity, such as deforestation, land-use change or water management helped the recent infamous outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome, ebola, avian influenza or malaria.

Some pampering for our social, cultural and spiritual health? No problem, a stop at the park will fix this. Access to green space has been associated with improved health outcomes, shorter hospital visits, reduced anti-social behavior, or so-called diseases of affluence, such as diabetes or obesity.

Next door, there is an “insurance agency” where we can get low-cost insurance against all kinds of natural disasters threatening our health and well-being: Some mangroves as tsunami protection, a forest to prevent landslide and a wetland to buffer floods. That should do.


Climate-change insurance

WAIT a minute, there is a promotion for climate-change insurance, provided by nature in the form of diverse and, thus, resilient ecosystems. This comes in handy, since the planet warms gradually, but the effects of extreme weather events—more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves—will be abrupt and acutely felt, all certainly not good for our health.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), points out five major health consequences of climate change.

First, rising temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods can compromise food security. Malnutrition—much of it caused by periodic droughts—is already responsible for an estimated 3.5 million deaths each year.

Second, more frequent extreme weather events mean more potential deaths and injuries caused by storms and floods. These are often followed by outbreaks of diseases, such as cholera, especially when water and sanitation services are damaged or destroyed.

Third, both scarcities of water, essential for hygiene, and contaminated excess water will increase diarrhea, already accounting for about 1.8 million deaths each year.

Fourth, heat waves can directly increase morbidity and mortality, mainly in elderly people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease. The heat wave of 2003, for instance, had a terrifying death toll of 70,000 in Europe alone.

Finally, changing temperatures and patterns of rainfall are expected to alter the geographical distribution of insect vectors that spread infectious diseases, like malaria and dengue.


A smart investment for climate change in Southeast Asia

LIVING in Southeast Asia needs climate insurance since the region will be affected way above average. Decreasing fresh water, rising sea levels, increasing floods and storms, and intensifying risks of hunger and diseases render the Philippines as the third most-threatened nation by climate change worldwide.

In a nutshell, global warming is likely to compromise all the invaluable health services we have window-shopped before. Thus, our climate-change insurance seems like a smart investment.

However, as with any other insurer, the insurance premium will depend on our preload.

An unhealthy lifestyle, such as smoking or drinking, will increase the risk for our health and, thus, the extent of the premium.

Accordingly, deforestation, oil spills or carbon-dioxide emissions can and should be set against the value of intact nature. The better we treat our ecosystems, the lower will be the premium, the safer will be the protection against climate-change impacts and the better will be the consequences for our health. It is time for action.


Healthy planet, healthy people

TODAY’S World Health Day celebration, spearheaded by the WHO, marks the anniversary of its First World Health Assembly in 1948. The celebration can be seen as a call for such action.

“While the reality of climate change can no longer be doubted, the magnitude of consequences, and—most especially for health—can still be reduced,” says Dr. Chan.

Protecting human health needs to be anchored at the heart of the global climate change and biodiversity agenda.


Act locally, think globally for a better health

THIS can start at the local level, where traditional knowledge plays an important role, not only for natural medicine but also for sustainable agriculture and food security.

Climate-change mitigation on the ground offers many win-win opportunities for enhancing population health. Take the example of the Philippines’s Department of Education, which is mainstreaming climate-change education into its public-school curriculum.

Regionally and internationally, consideration of the health impact of climate change can help political leaders move with appropriate urgency, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon puts it.

“We must respond with urgent action to stabilize the climate, achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and encourage individual action,” the UN leader said.

The project BiodivHealthSEA, for example, focuses on local impacts and perceptions of global changes in health and biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

Another regional initiative is the Asean Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines, and coordinating sustainable biodiversity management.

Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project, has been supporting the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change, as well as health.

The project takes the good health as a precious commodity seriously. Following the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity approach, that is demonstrating the economic and social value of     ecosystem services, such as health, raises awareness and informs management and policy decisions.

To sum up, we need to make invisible health and insurance services visible—economically tangible.

In comparison, this year wealthy nations will donate more than €13 billion to procure food and medicines, to improve sanitation and freshwater access for the world’s poorest.

As we have seen, other investments may be just as valuable, if not more so, for ensuring health and well-being. There may be no greater strategic investment in health than in the protection of biodiversity and climate.

Health is our most basic human right and one of the most important indicators of sustainable development. Without an intact ecology and climate system, we may end up paying the hidden price for nature’s health services—giving us a much bigger headache than last night’s party.

Philipp Gassner is an external consultant with the GIZ-assisted Biodiversity and Climate Change Project being implemented by the Asean Center for Biodiversity.

In Photo: Burmese children share a feast of vegetables, meat and rice. Biodiversity is a source of food for over 500 million people in the Asean region and Cone snails’ (Conus geographicus) 140,000 substances show potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and heart attack. (Zaw Min/Asean Biodiversity Outlook and Wikimedia Commons)






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