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From heading off the next global pandemic to improving food security in Canada’s North, tackling some of humanity’s most pressing health problems is the purpose of a new research and teaching institute being launched at the University of Guelph.

The new One Health Institute (OHI) will bring together multidisciplinary researchers from across campus along with external partners to address problems at what Jeff Wichtel, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), calls the intersection of people, animals and the environment.

One Health has long been promoted at U of G as an interdisciplinary approach to promoting health and curbing infectious diseases.

Looking at how human, animal and environmental health interact is key to stemming many emerging vector-borne ailments such as Lyme disease or combatting the growing health threat posed by drug-resistant microbes, said Wichtel, who will chair a planned OHI advisory board.

“We cannot solve problems in antimicrobial resistance without professionals working together, bringing their perspectives on animals, humans and environmental aspects.”

OHI researchers may help in understanding how northern permafrost thaw under climate change may threaten water quality, alter wildlife habitat and disrupt food access – elements that influence food security, disease prevalence and northern ways of living, he added.

“This institute offers a new research and academic platform to promote One Health as an important vehicle to solve intractable problems. It will help us solve complex problems at the intersection that cannot be solved by one discipline alone. Society needs people thinking across disciplines.”

Charlotte Yates, provost and vice-president (academic), said, “The One Health Institute will provide a platform to spur collaboration among many of our most successful researchers and will create synergies among existing centres and initiatives, including the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, the Guelph Institute for Development Studies and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance.”

She said “the mission of the One Health Institute is to enhance and promote academic, research and outreach programs to propel the University of Guelph to the forefront of One Health scholarship internationally.”

The institute will involve researchers from all U of G colleges, with new programming under way in OVC, the College of Biological Science (CBS) and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS).

The OHI will strengthen connections across disciplines and connect experts in varied fields in new collaborations, said Cate Dewey, associate vice-president (academic).

“This community of practice will bring together faculty from across campus interested in doing One Health research and teaching,” said Dewey, appointed as the institute’s interim director for three years.

Referring to the H1N1 influenza virus that led the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic a decade ago, Dewey said researchers and public health experts had to work together to study and combat the disease.

“It’s clear that we need people trained across disciplines to understand how such pandemics could happen,” she said. “About 70 per cent of new human diseases come from animals. We need to work across disciplines to understand how to handle the next problem.”

She said more intense forest fires under climate change affect habitats and animals as well as human health. Those human health impacts may range from direct respiratory ailments to more indirect effects of long-term economic losses, including mental health concerns among people whose communities or jobs are disrupted by conflagrations.

The new OHI will be a key part of the University’s wider One Health Agenda.

That planned comprehensive teaching and research initiative will offer the only One Health undergraduate program of its kind in North America and one of only a few such teaching programs at the graduate level on the continent. “The undergraduate degree will be the most flexible, broad-based baccalaureate health degree available in Canada,” said Wichtel.

Under the broader agenda, the University will complete a cluster of faculty hires, including pending new Canada Research Chairs to be appointed in OVC and CSAHS. A third new faculty member to be based in CBS will look after the new One Health undergraduate degree program.

Plans also include joint funding proposals for major health research grants, international academic partnerships in developing and developed countries, and global outreach and promotion. Undergraduate and graduate programs will provide experiential learning opportunities with government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Referring to prospective students who will ultimately work in varied areas from policy to practice, Wichtel said, “We will produce leaders in the field.”

He said the OHI draws upon longstanding teaching and research expertise in OVC, ranked among top veterinary schools worldwide. The initiative will also benefit from U of G’s location and role as a hub for agri-food agencies, business and government as well as access to nearby medical schools.

Said Dewey, “This institute will put the University of Guelph on the global map for One Health.”