As part of the yearlong celebration of the NIEHS 50th anniversary, scientists, policy experts, public health practitioners, fellows, and others gathered at the institute for Global Environmental Health Day.
With more than 120 attending in person and nearly 70 via webcast, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., welcomed everyone to the first of what is expected to become an annual meeting. “The rich and diverse perspectives we’ll hear today offer an exceptional microcosm of the views from multiple fields related to global environmental health — from research to practice to training,” she said.
Integrating environmental and global health
John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, reviewed the goals and themes of the NIEHS strategic plan. “Our global environmental health program really touches on each and every one of these strategic themes,” he said.
“Some people think of what they do as environmental health, and others think of their work as global health,” said Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., program analyst in the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation. “This event recognizes that to solve global problems we need to better integrate those two fields.” Thigpen Tart and Trisha Castranio, program coordinator for the NIEHS Global Environmental Health (GEH) program, were key organizers of the event.
NIEHS recently became the first federal member of the Triangle Global Health Consortium (TGHC). “We [in the state of North Carolina] have a depth and breadth of global health organizations that you just don’t see in other states,” said Claire Neal, Ph.D., TGHC executive director. The consortium helped plan the event and hosted an exhibit table.
Health and diplomacy
Underscoring the theme of integration, keynote speaker Mitchell Wolfe, M.D., deputy assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that integrating diplomacy and health can reinforce the goals of each pursuit.
“Health is often a great tool to strengthen diplomatic relationships,” Wolfe said. “Our goal is to bring scientific rigor and technical expertise to the intersection of research, health, and international relations, through diplomacy.”
Later, talking with research fellows and graduate students about global health careers, Wolfe pointed out that the traditional focus of global health is shifting toward technical collaborations, and sharing research and results.
Wealth of organizations and expertise
Participants, including Asher Hildebrand from the office of Rep. David Price, D-N.C., and others attending by webcast from as far away as Africa and Europe, learned about topics ranging from electronic waste and hazardous exposures, to collaborations with local communities and the principle of one health, which examines the convergence of human, animal, and ecosystem health.
One panel discussed the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September 2015. Health is just one of the specific goals of the SDGs, and panelists highlighted the integral role of health in achieving other goals.
Laura Hoemeke, Dr.P.H., director of communications and advocacy for IntraHealth International, said health should be seen as an investment. “Health is necessary for economic growth. When workers are not healthy, in general, they cannot produce,” she said.
Balbus highlighted the intersection of the SDGs and climate change. “Achieving health benefits from reducing the extent of climate change touches on almost all sectors and almost all of the sustainable development goals,” he said.
Working in the present, preparing for the future
The challenges faced by researchers and health workers worldwide were balanced by the passion of the speakers for making a difference in the world. The final group of presentations addressed programs to train the next generation of GEH researchers and practitioners. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, and Pakistan, two of whom are trainees at NIEHS, shared their stories as global scientists and citizens.
Srishti Shrestha, Ph.D., visiting fellow in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, said that indoor air pollution was a problem for the largely rural population of Nepal. “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is one of the leading causes of death,” she said.
Teminioluwa Ajayi, second year medical student at Duke University, discussed his award-winning program to inspire children in Nigeria to pursue scientific careers. “It’s important to think about how we start generating this interest from the get go, to make sure that environmental health means something to a five-year-old kid, before they even start thinking about what career they’re going to go in to,” he said.
The agenda and program booklet, including abstracts of the talks, are available on the Global Environmental Health Day(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/conference/geh_2016/) web page. Videos of the presentations will be posted in the coming weeks.