IEF 2008: An international collaborative effort

May 10, 2011
Ecosystems and Human Health
The second International EcoHealth Forum (IEF 2008), in Mérida, Mexico, achieved two principal objectives: “increasing ownership of the process by the southern institutions, and increasing the interactions between a diverse set of international players convened to further develop the ecosystem approaches to human health,” said Dr Roberto Bazzani of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The Forum’s success was ensured by an international collaborative effort. Since IEF 2008 coincided with the conference of the International Association for Ecology and Health (EcoHealth), “instead of doing two different meetings, we began discussions to have a joint activity,” said Dr Bazzani.

The Mexican National Institute for Public Health hosted the Forum. Three Brazilian institutions—the Institute for Ecological Research, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Zootechny of the University of São Paolo—joined with IDRC, EcoHealth, and later, the Pan American Health Organization to plan the Forum. The Communities of Practice in Ecohealth (CoPEHs) also collaborated in the organization process.

The collaborative approach encouraged “more open exchanges” between the different schools of ecohealth, said Dr Bazzani. Bringing people with different perspectives together “provided a more rich environment for us,” in which researchers learned from each other. For instance, although most ecohealth communities share a strong transdisciplinary perspective, North American ecohealth researchers “pay more attention to the ecological dimensions . . . whereas Latin American players tend to pay more attention to the social dimensions of human health. In Latin America we have less expertise in ecology and health, so exchanges were beneficial for all parties.”

“A hallmark of the Mérida Forum was bringing together all these different groups,” Andrés Sánchez said. Regional CoPEHs held their own meetings at the Forum, and “there were also exchanges between them.”

While in the first Ecohealth Forum in 2003 two-thirds of the researchers were from North America, in 2008 both researchers and practitioners from all around the world came to Mexico—689 participants from 68 countries.

“It was incredible to see the representation from different regions and countries . . . and disciplines,” Dr Bazzani said. Interaction among all the players “reflects very well the interdisciplinarity of ecohealth.”

IEF 2008 demonstrated “that the ecohealth approach really works and really is having impacts on research and policy,” said Dr Bazzani.

When the IDRC ecohealth program officially began in 1996, “our first goal then was to see if what we call ecohealth could actually be relevant to both scientists and practitioners,” Sánchez said, and at the 2003 conference, “we brought our partners to see how far we had gone and see where were the gaps were.” In 2008, said Dr Bazzani, “a very relevant set of research outcomes and policy outcomes in the different regions [were] presented during the Forum.”

The Forum generated phenomenal energy. Even at the end of the conference, when people were “exhausted,” different groups still gathered in large numbers for post-forum meetings to discuss forms of collaboration across the different regions of the world. A momentum seems to be building among scientists and practitioners “interested in a global dialogue for tackling the pressing problems on health and environment that we now face at a planetary scale,” Sánchez said.

The three core themes for the plenary sessions—climate change and health, emerging infectious diseases, and sustainable development issues —were timely.

“The use of ecohealth approaches for emerging and infectious diseases . . . will be progressively and increasingly important,” Dr Bazzani said. Recent pandemics such as avian influenza and the H1N1 virus demonstrate the relevance of social and ecological interactions, and the interconnectedness of our world.

The field has grown from isolated projects to “a movement of ecohealth,” Dr Bazzani said. The high attendance at the Forum was also encouraging for IDRC because it is a “good indicator that the process is not relying exclusively on us, and that other players are [investing in ecohealth].”

Andres Sanchez
Senior Program Specialist
Ecosystems and Human Health

Dr Roberto Bazzani
Senior Program Specialist
Ecosystems and Human Health