Medical schools have historically had little interest in ecological services, sustainability, population growth or economics, but to Western’s Ecosystem Health Program, these factors are central to determining health outcomes.
“We often consider problems of the environment to be separate from those of human populations, but especially in areas where subsistence is so closely linked to the land, a healthy ecosystem is essential to maintaining good health,” says Beryl Ivey Chair in Ecosystem Health, Charles Trick. “To understand the true value of ecosystem health, one needs to stand on the edge of a community in crisis,” he adds.
Through the Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative he helped establish in 2005, Trick is doing just that.
Working with Jack Bend, Irena Creed and Regna Darnell, Trick closely examines shifting ecological factors affecting health in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha region, which has grown from 19,000 people in 1990 to more than 400,000 today. Importantly, the project partners with stakeholder groups to focus on issues deemed critical by members of the community – not by researchers from Western.
Given the rapid influx of people and industrial operations, the Naivasha region has become a source of economic wealth in the form of ecotourism, geothermal energy production and floriculture, but these benefits have not come without cost. The land is no longer as fertile, fisheries are failing and the region has witnessed an increased incidence of social diseases and HIV/AIDS.
There are also major concerns about levels of pesticides, fertilizers and metals making their way into the lake – which has become the source of all water needs and the sink to all residential and industrial wastes. These factors are clearly affecting the population’s health.
“Inhabitants rely on the lake as a direct source of drinking water and food, and it serves as the foundation of their economy and social structure, but the lake and the land around it are under siege from unsustainable use of resources, pollution and the threat of climate change,” Trick says.
While adapting ecosystem health strategies developed at Western to such challenges in Kenya, the Africa Initiative has also created 10 student internships and 15 collaborative research projects with Egerton University. In the process, this partnership has built cross-cultural capacity by providing training at Western for Kenyan students that creates an understanding of healthy ecosystems and encourages a culture of responsibility to the health of their communities back home.
“The humanitarian aspect of the Africa Initiative is that it is not just a ‘band-aid,” Trick says. “Rather, it fosters a culture of understanding of the relationships between sick ecosystems and human illness so that underprivileged individuals learn to manage their future.”
The team’s international efforts will also provide additional benefits in Canada, particularly for much-needed humanitarian initiatives within aboriginal communities.
Trick and his colleagues will use the $5,000 earned from the Western Humanitarian Award to honour the Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative’s global vision by funding a documentary filmed by local Kenyan residents about their views of the ecosystem and their health, which will be shared around the world.