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Consortium of Universities for Global Health: Bridging the Knowledge-Needs Gap

Topics: Human Wellbeing | Comments

Consortium of Universities for Global Health: Bridging the Knowledge-Needs Gap

The 5th annual meeting of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) was held in May 2014 in Washington DC. Over 1450 people attended representing 54 countries and over 205 institutions.

The goal of this organisation, formed in 2008 by 24 leading institutions in North America, is to address global health challenges by bringing together academics and service providers and facilitating collaboration. It particularly aims to address health inequalities and improve the wellbeing of people living in poverty throughout the world.

As the Executive Director of CUGH Dr Keith Martin explains, the organisation now has a membership of 135 academic institutions around the world and a database of over 8000 individuals.

“Most of these individuals are in academia but we also have members in publicly-funded research institutions, the private sector and NGOs,” he says.

Dr Martin is a cross-disciplinary specialist, having worked as a physician in emergency medicine and general practice, and serving as a Member of Parliament in Canada for more than 17 years. With experience in foreign policy and international development, plus founding Canada’s first Parliamentary International Conservation Caucus, Dr Martin is committed to showing how sustainable conservation projects also deliver health benefits.

The nexus between human health and the environment featured prominently in this year’s CUGH conference, including the issue of food security and health.

“Deforestation to acquire solid fuel for heating and cooking is causing enormous health and environmental challenges,” says Dr Martin.

“The use of solid fuel contributes to respiratory problems – from pneumonia to asthma – that are leading causes of mortality and morbidity. Deforestation is also contributing to soil erosion, topsoil loss, biodiversity losses and damaged watercourses. This produces a vicious cycle that causes food and water insecurity – and conflict – over limited natural resources that are vital to human existence.

On the positive side, Dr Martin says that there are solutions available to address these problems.

The use of manure and processed human waste as sustainable fuel sources can have a dramatic, positive impact on reducing deforestation and its damaging effects. The challenge is overcoming the gap that enables solutions to be widely accessible,” he says.

The impact of urbanisation on health of people in low-income countries was another topic discussed at the conference. With estimates from the United Nations that the world’s population will increase by 2.3 billion by the year 2050, it is a timely issue indeed.keith martin CUGH_0130 (Small)

According to Dr Martin, one of the key challenges with increasing urbanisation is to build ‘smart cities’ that impact less on the environment and improve health outcomes.

“We have the knowledge to build smart cities. Urban planning, public transport, and thoroughfares for pedestrians and bicycles will reduce pollution. By increasing people’s activity this will reduce the impact of the non-communicable diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes that are leading causes of death and illness worldwide,” he says.

With participants from institutions such as the World Bank, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and from universities including Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Uganda’s Makerere University, the CUGH conference showed that the interface between human health and the environment is capturing the attention of leading academics worldwide.

However, as Dr Martin says, knowledge-sharing is just one step: also crucial is turning that knowledge into action.

“Despite an abundance of research produced every year, only a trickle of this knowledge is translated to have an effect in the field. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century is scaling up what we already know to improve environmental and human security,” he says.

“There is a disconnect between knowledge and needs and we are trying to fill this gap.”

He reports that CUGH is working to identify good practices and build strong partnerships that will strengthen the capacity of communities to implement evidence-based solutions.

“There is enormous opportunity to manage ecosystems in a way that produces benefits to people who live in or near vital ecosystems – and improve environmental outcomes. Effective conservation measures are actually sound public health policies,” he says.

Climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation are making the need for action even more urgent – another key conference theme.

“The nexus between climate change and the impact on people’s health is slowly beginning to be recognised but is still in its infancy,” he says.

“Connecting both of them will create a greater impetus to implement what we know will reduce our carbon footprint.”

He cites changing building codes, tax shifting to increase adoption of green energy sources and protecting valuable carbon sinks as key mechanisms to achieve this.

“The economics of inaction are colossal,” he says.

“It is vital that advocacy takes place not only at the political level but, more importantly, publicly. We have the tools to do this. It is just a matter now of us getting on with it before time runs out,” he says.

Dr Martin believes that collaboration between the environmental and health sectors and developing partnerships that cross professional and geographic boundaries will be the keys to creating change and improving both environmental and health outcomes.

He cites the Roots and Shoots program of the Jane Goodall Institute as one that is making a difference, by providing opportunities for young people to make a positive impact on the environment.

“It is global and can mobilise the young to act in their communities to address environmental challenges.”

Dr Martin’s message remains one of hope for the global good.

“There is still a massive lack of understanding about the connection between health and the environment. There are wonderful untapped opportunities that can be scaled up to improve both of them.”





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