Optimising forest benefits whilst minimising impacts of emerging zoonotic diseases: co-developing an interdisciplinary tool for forests in India

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Biodiversity (Wallingford)

Abstract

Vast numbers of poor people in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods and food security. In India, around 300 million people depend on forests that are badly degraded by human settlement, agricultural expansion, and over-grazing. When they access food, fuel, fodder and other products from degraded forests, these people risk exposure to harmful pathogens that circulate naturally in wildlife. The ecological balance between diverse wildlife and arthropod vector communities can be altered by forest degradation, but these ecological changes interact with the priorities and behaviour of people in the landscape to determine when and where exposure occurs. Upsurges in human cases of zoonotic diseases (diseases that circulate between animals and humans) in LMICs, like malaria and Leishmaniases, have been linked to deforestation, reforestation or particular forest activities. Knowledge gaps on the role of ecology and sociology in underpinning these changes prevents development of intelligent disease control strategies that allow people to benefit from forests but minimise exposure to disease. Such strategies require cooperation of policy-makers and forest users from across the animal health, human health and forestry sectors, from national and international decision-makers down to village communities, that all interact with the disease system.
By bringing such stakeholders together in a network, along with experts in public and animal health, ecology, epidemiology and social science, this project aims to develop a new inter-disciplinary framework and decision-support tool to reduce health, welfare and livelihood impacts of zoonotic diseases on people that depend on forests in LMICs. It will be developed initially for Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD), a fatal haemorrhagic disease of forest populations in India that cycles naturally amongst ticks, rodents and primates.
The research underpinning the tool will include:
1. Mapping of key stakeholders in each sector, their knowledge, needs for decision-support tools and how they are impacted by or impact upon the disease system.
2. Intensive field observation of (i) how the priorities, behaviour and perceptions of disease risk of different forest groups, like traditional hunter-gatherer tribes and farmers, change; (ii) how the numbers and species of wildlife hosts and tick vectors, and the consequent hazard of KFD changes along forest landscape gradients from closed through fragmented to open forest.
3. Matching of historical geographical patterns in human cases of KFD with environmental patterns within models to disentangle social, climate and forest landscape drivers across the affected region in India.
A geographical decision support tool, integrating this knowledge, will map how disease risk varies across forest landscapes, from which activities and by which forest user groups, with other constraints on disease management, availability and access to health care and medicines.
The project will reduce impacts of KFD on health, welfare and livelihoods by increasing awareness of disease risk in forest users, especially tribal groups that harvest non-timber forest products and farmers that graze livestock. These groups will further benefit from specific guidance on (i) the key forest locations and habitats, seasons and activities, and (ii) why and how to access medicine and other protective measures. The decision-support tool will help disease managers to better target vaccination and risk communication efforts towards the forest communities that are most at risk and will inform planning of land use in forests.
The project platform and approach of co-developing research and decision support tools on zoonotic diseases with stakeholders across sectors, accounting for their needs and underlying ecological and social processes, will build significant capacity in science, policy and practitioners to respond to emerging global threats.

Technical Summary

Vast numbers of poor people in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) depend on healthy forest ecosystems for their livelihoods and food security. In India, around 300 million people depend on forests that are badly degraded. Forest habitats in these countries are a major source of food, fuel, livestock fodder and other non-timber forest products but also of emerging infections. Upsurges in zoonotic diseases (e.g. malaria, Leishmaniases) have been linked to deforestation or re-afforestation and to forest usage in LMICs but the social and ecological mechanisms underlying these changes are unknown.
Advancing the global One Health initiative, involving stakeholders across public health, animal health and forestry, this project develops a novel interdisciplinary framework and decision-support tool to understand how forests can best be used to enhance livelihoods whilst minimising exposure to zoonotic disease. The framework is developed initially for the tick-borne Kyasanur Forest Disease Virus that causes debilitating and fatal haemorrhagic human disease in forests in India. The tool will be framed by cross-sectoral, multi-scale mapping of stakeholder knowledge, human sensitivity to disease impacts and forest-user needs for decision-support. The links between forest structure and (a) the human behaviour, priorities and perceptions of risk that govern exposure and (b) the distribution and infection rates of wildlife host and tick that govern disease hazard will be quantified, along fragmented forest gradients. This research will generate spatial decision-support tools that help disease managers to better target risk communication, vaccination and prevention measures as well as guidance for individual forest user groups on forest locations and habitats, seasons and activities that pose the most risk of exposure. Wider application of this inter-disciplinary framework to emerging forest zoonotic diseases in LMICs will be explored with the global research community.

Planned Impact

Health, welfare and economic development impact:
The proposed research addresses an area of economic development and welfare relevant to Low and/or Middle Income Countries (LMICs) where threats from emerging zoonotic diseases in forest ecosystems present a risk to human health, well-being and livelihoods. The majority of poor communities in LMICs depend on healthy forest ecosystems for livelihoods and food security. Forest habitats in these countries are a significant source of food, fuel, livestock fodder and other non-timber forest products but also of emerging infections. Upsurges in zoonotic diseases have been linked to deforestation or re-afforestation in LMICs and to forest usage. Forest communities are rendered even more vulnerable by their remoteness from healthcare infrastructure.
This project will improve the economic development, health and welfare of the people who depend on forests ecosystems in India by developing a novel interdisciplinary tool to understand how forests can be used sustainably to maximise ecosystem benefits whilst minimising exposure to zoonotic disease. The framework will be developed initially for Kyasanur Forest Disease Virus that causes debilitating and fatal haemorrhagic disease in forest communities. The project will scope out how the framework could be generalised to understand trade-offs between infectious disease burdens, trade, and forest ecosystem benefits in different global contexts. Key novel elements are: co-production of decision supports tools with actors and beneficiaries across the public health, animal health and forest policy sectors at landscape to national scales; joint interdisciplinary examination analysis of ecological and social processes; quantification of links between forest structure and habitat use by hosts, non-hosts and vectors.
Scientific impact:
This project will increase international scientific collaboration, post-doctoral training and global scientific understanding of threats from emerging zoonotic diseases in forest ecosystems. By developing novel inter-disciplinary methods for understanding ecological and social processes underpinning disease impacts and for integrating important actors, behaviours and priorities across human health, animal health and forest sectors, it will significantly advance the global One Health initiative. The project will build and integrate capacity in ecological and epidemiological modelling, tick vector ecology and taxonomy, forest remote sensing, participatory methodology in both India and the UK. It will provide novel data resources (tick vector communities, forest remote sensing and GIS farmer grazing routes) to underpin future research on forest zoonoses.
Policy impact:
'Silo' thinking in policy sectors often results in a disconnected and piecemeal approach to disease management, and a lack of mainstreaming of actions. We will address this by identifying and engaging across the public health, animal health and forest policy sectors. Our approach of jointly framing the problem and solutions from the start of the project with these policy stakeholders, and maintaining strong engagement throughout, will pave the way for cross-sectoral integration in this and future projects. We will ensure that the research we produce is not only tailored and relevant to the range of stakeholders affected by and affecting zoonotic diseases, but importantly research will be credible and legitimate, building on the knowledge and needs of stakeholders across sectors and scales. Stakeholder collaboration and engagement will be facilitated through a range of activities (multi-stakeholder workshops, interviews, focus groups, one to ones). We expect this strong focus on cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary (including co-production of knowledge) working will result in research that is more robust and have greater impact, but will also strengthen the science, policy and practitioners capacity.

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