WHO and OIE and the One Health initiative

one-health-logoThe World Health Organisation – who hasn’t heard of it? Most people know about the WHO (not the band, but the United Nations organization), but for those who don’t know, WHO sets international health standards and directs global responses to health crises. But who knew the WHO has a quirky, animal-loving cousin? The Office International des Epizooties – or OIE – is the animal version of the WHO (clearly…). Together with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, these organisations have launched the One Health initiative, an online platform that rethinks the dominant paradigm of treating human health and disease as distinct from animal health and disease.

Office International des Epizooties was the name chosen way back yonder in 1924 when people came to think, “Hey, maybe we should care about animal diseases” and, “Since animal diseases don’t seem to care about borders, maybe we should make this an international thing.” So there you have it, the OIE was formed. In 2003, OIE’s official title became the World Organization for Animal Health (through their acronym remains OIE) and it now includes 180 member countries. (On a side note, I am completely bamboozled as to why they wouldn’t change their acronym to WOAH. If you and a friend saw it beside the World Health Organisation, one could exclaim, “WOAH!” The other could then respond, “WHO?”, followed by a high five and a chuckle. A real opportunity has been missed.)

The OIE, like the WHO, is made up of a General Assembly consisting of one delegate from each member country. The General Assembly meets once a year in Paris (how romantic) to discuss creating international standards for aspects of animal health, especially those affecting trade, and to adopt resolutions for the control of major animal diseases. In addition to the delegates, regions have representatives that oversee the regional adaptation of surveillance and control of animal diseases. The OIE also has a number of specialist commissions aimed at using current scientific knowledge to help develop international standards on specific groups, such as ‘Terrestrial animals’ and ‘Aquatic Animals’.

Besides shaping international policy, another major part of the OIE’s mission is disseminating information across its member countries. This system largely relies on altruistic self-reporting by member countries, and provides a system for detection of disease emergence patterns and a warning to trade partnerships. Providing this level of transparency is one of the primary goals of the OIE. When an outbreak is detected, the OIE is able to respond with rapid technical advice for animal health professionals on the ground. Everyone benefits by preventing economically devastating diseases from spreading across borders. If fewer animals develop illnesses, then fewer people should get sick or lose their livelihoods.

This relationship exists because 60% of human infectious diseases are of animal origin. That is not to say the impact doesn’t also go the other way, but in that instance we are generally less likely to recognise the transfer of disease. (An elephant is somewhat inhibited from taking itself to see the doctor—no Medicare you see.) Regardless, human health and animal health are tied together – not exactly a surprise. This concept is called “One Health.”

While One Health is not a new idea – the term having been coined in the early 2000s – the OIE recently released a One Health web portal. This site allows people to go and learn more about One Health, and what the OIE does at the human/animal disease interface. This is pretty cool, because people should care. (Even if it is purely for self-serving reasons like “I don’t want Ebola”, or “I think Avian Influenza makes me look fat.”)

On the One Health website it states, “Human health and animal health are interdependent and bound to the health of the ecosystems in which they exist.”


Admittedly, this approach is a little human centric: protect the animals to protect ourselves. Ultimately, however, this perspective doesn’t disadvantage animals, because the outcome of adopting the One Health approach can only be good for both animals and people. This means recognising the rise of human-animal contact, and the subsequent impacts. For example, human interference in natural ecosystems will cause the emergence of new diseases, often via increased stress on wildlife populations. The case is similar with changes in climate and human behavior. These risks increase with globalization. To help predict, respond to, and prevent the spread of diseases in the future, One Health aims to educate readers about the relationship between human and animal health.

The Hendra virus is an example of this type of emerging disease network, first identified in 1994, with more recent cases culminating in several human deaths. Flying foxes act as the natural reservoir for Hendra virus, and about 47% have been exposed and mounted an immune response to the virus. It is transmitted through the animal body fluids and waste. Horses exposed to these by-products may contract the infection, which can then spread to other horses or humans. In horses, the virus results in neurological and respiratory signs, and in both horses and humans it is deadly. A likely cause for emergence of this disease is food shortages, which stress the bats and lead to higher rates of transmission and exposure.

Okay, so do you get it? One Health: stressing out the environment is a bit like poking that crocodile in the face when it was just trying to take a nice nap in the sunshine. Y’all gonna get bit.

I for one am happy to hear that international organizations like the OIE and WHO are pushing the One Health angle. These organizations are increasingly important for coordinating timely and effective responses to disease outbreaks, and now it is clear that this means animal and human diseases. Good one OIE. It almost makes up for your poor acronym choice.

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