UP’s One Health for Change promotes transdisciplinary collaborative research and capacity building

Posted on August 20, 2021

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of One Health to save lives, protect livelihoods and safeguard nature. This is in an effort to reduce the risk of future pandemics. The One Health approach, which states that human, animal and environmental health are linked, is not new. However, it is now even more urgent that it should be translated into action and change people’s lives. It is not just about pandemic preparedness, but is much more far-reaching. It will create a healthier ecosystem for all, addressing several other concerns like biodiversity loss, climate change, food security and social inequalities.

The University of Pretoria (UP) is exceptionally well positioned to make a difference through a transdisciplinary One Health approach. Because of these existing strengths, UP is leading One Health-focused research.  Across the University’s many faculties, the Future Africa Institute has launched an initiative, in partnership with Generation Unlimited – the flagship programme of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef)’s Humanitarian Programme – to respond to the global health issues related to the pandemic. This is known as the University of Pretoria One Health for Change (UP-OHC) initiative and links with other national, regional and international networks.

The goal is to develop capacity by empowering future academics and develop a transdisciplinary approach. This includes the disciplines and skills needed to build evidence that matters to society and decision makers. Its theme, “breaking barriers, forging knowledge”, alludes to the goal of breaking down barriers caused by “silos” between different disciplines, and to build new knowledge. In light of this theme, the scope of the network is inclusive and expansive. It seeks to explore solutions within the University, between institutions and across geographical borders that involve national, regional and international stakeholders, with a strong focus on Africa.

Societies and communities must be the focus, and research must be relevant and shared through communication and education platforms. The UP-OHC has been involved in several outreach activities at schools, to the general public and to professionals. These activities are aimed at communicating “research that matters”. The UP-OHC aims to develop sustainable solutions and mitigation strategies that are practical for our region and beyond.

The UP-OHC initiative, led by Prof Wanda Markotter, Future Africa Research Chair and Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses in the Faculty of Health Sciences, initiated several small projects in 2020 to achieve these goals. In addition, a seedbed of feasible actions has been developed that can lead to new projects in the future. These projects are short-term mentorship-driven programmes that are specifically aimed at developing human resource capacity in transdisciplinary One Health research that is focused on young scientists.

These projects include community outreach and involve various faculties and departments at the University. Projects include a focus on immediate COVID-19 problems, such as improved surveillance, risk factors for zoonotic disease spillover, human perceptions and attitudes towards mitigation actions, the effectiveness of sanitisers and the regulatory framework. They also address broader One Health topics such as parasitic and vector-borne diseases, food nutrition, women and child health, as well as the challenges experienced by vulnerable communities, including informal settlements. Specific projects include the following:

  • All-inclusive One Health risk analysis for community health
  • COVID-19: The downstream impact of disinfectants and sanitisers on the environment, food and healthcare systems: A legal and regulatory framework
  • Molecular prevalence of bovine fasciolosis in slaughter cattle, risk factors for human fascioliasis and awareness training in the Eastern Cape
  • Adapting to a new normal: Understanding knowledge, attitudes and practices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • The identification of zoonotic disease hotspots in South Africa: A risk map assessment
  • The detection of infectious diseases in livestock at abattoirs and knowledge transfer to stakeholders in the Eastern Cape
  • Fruits and vegetables (or foods) adopted to climate change towards improving food security for children within the first 1 000 days: A scoping study in marginal communities
  • SARS-CoV-2 water-based epidemiology in Gauteng
  • Local-scale artificial light use as a predictor of vector-borne disease risk
  • Mosquito-borne vector epidemiology and One Health in Vhembe District, Limpopo
  • The prevalence and virulence characterisation and antimicrobial resistance profiling of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli isolates carried by goats on communal farms in Gauteng
  • Engaging communities in creating a supportive environment for mothers to promote exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond
  • A pilot project sharing the narratives of community members involved in various UP student-led projects on their daily experiences and realities, navigating their lives in vulnerable communities in the City of Tshwane

The team visited several communities and schools to disseminate education material and present knowledge. Innovative approaches, including arts and drama, were used to communicate important messages. These activities build relationships with communities and open communication channels, with a direct impact on designing future research and performing research that matters to societies. The team also created transdisciplinary discussion platforms where academics and stakeholders can share knowledge, challenges and ideas to create a transdisciplinary research framework. All these activities are fostering a transdisciplinary space (@FutureAfrica).

These activities will be continued in 2021, in partnership with Unicef, with a focus on African women and expanding collaborations and capacity building to include other higher education institutions in South Africa and on the broader African continent. The ultimate goal is to find solutions for Africa’s problems, which include all stakeholders and society, with a focus on capacity building in the youth.

- Author Department of Institutional Advancement

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