The Growing Importance of a One-Health Lens, according to Dr. Peter Melby

Peter Melby, MD

By: Austin Weynand, MHS

Dr. Peter Melby, who has been with UTMB since 2010, is the Director of both the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Center for Tropical Diseases. He has an extensive background in immunopathogenesis research and is well-versed in neglected diseases, particularly leishmaniasis, for which he has ongoing studies both locally and abroad. When I visited him in his office, I was greeted by a kind man with a soft voice. The room is dotted with culture and art, and, fittingly, a map of the world rests on the wall behind him.

To Dr. Melby, the importance of One Health is highlighted by the emergence of zoonotic diseases and their relationship with changes in both the built and natural environments. He notes that the identification of such diseases must be approached through more of a “One Health lens,” since the spread of infection is facilitated by the environmental factors surrounding it.

Dr. Melby knows this from experience. In Kenya, where he runs a study on the transmission of visceral leishmaniasis, climate and physical changes to the landscape have introduced the Sandfly vector to new areas, leading to unexpected endemicity. Moreover, monsoon season has brought floods that can prevent sick patients from receiving timely healthcare. Broadly, he relates that malnutrition, sewage infrastructure, and access to care have severe influences on the distribution and incidence of disease. “This was something already understood before COVID-19,” he states.

There are challenges to implementing One Health discoveries into public health practice. According to Dr. Melby, while changes may occur quickly in the United States, the process can be slow in developing nations. Some regions are difficult to navigate due to their rural environment. Others lack proper clinical facilities – or, if they have them, cannot easily connect with civilians due to logistical and transportation obstacles. This calls for broad and creative thinking to instigate change, be it improvements in hygiene, nutrition, or other practices. Such thinking is needed by scientists in the field.

Those scientists, says Melby, are in great supply at UTMB. “We have the expertise,” he shares. “With the One Health framework, we can leverage our expertise to enhance our approach and make more meaningful discoveries.”

Dr. Melby (bottom-middle; right-most person in the hammock)

Dr. Melby left me with some thoughts regarding how we think about emerging infections. He described  one hinderance to being engaged on an international level is the blinders people can put up to the broader implications of One Health. Sometimes it is easier to take care of what’s in our immediate vicinity – i.e., confining ones research and action to their own habitat rather than expanding their reach. The aforementioned wealth of expertise that UTMB and other institutions have must be applied broadly, lest some areas of health go unnoticed.

Lastly, he mentioned that every individual can play a role in One Health, whether they are involved in research or not. How? “Knowledge,” he states simply. Challenging people to read about climate change and environmental impacts on disease distribution, and the zoonotic transmission of infectious diseases, is of great importance. Such knowledge naturally leads to engagement – whether direct or indirect.

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