Healthy earth, healthy people

Dr Helmy Hazmi

KUCHING: In order for humans to be healthy, it is equally important for the planet to be healthy.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences public health expert Associate Professor Dr Helmy Hazmi who drew the parallel said it was therefore time to rethink and relearn.

To illustrated his point, he gave some insight on how to have a better and healthier environment in conjunction with the World Health Day celebrated this month.

“Although it is cliché to say that what we do today is for the next generation, it is true that we owe it to them,” he said.

He said that the increasing incidences of diseases, the emerging and re-emerging of infectious diseases are the result of human activities on the face of the earth that creates imbalances, resulting in pollution in the air, water and soil.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is one example of the increased interaction between humans and nature.

“And the recent news of microplastics that were found in human lungs and womb are findings that cannot be ignored,” he said.

Thus, he said, these are several events showing that the earth is not completely healthy, accounting for maladies that require a remedy.

Dr Helmy said humans are putting their own health at jeopardy if they do not keep the planet healthy.

“The environment and human health are inextricably intertwined and mutually beneficial. Our very survival and ability to flourish on the face of the earth depends on how mother earth treats us well. Because of that, we need to return a favour by treating mother nature well too,” he said.

Air pollution, contaminated water, insufficient sanitation, particularly solid waste management, hazards linked with certain hazardous compounds, and the negative consequences of climate change, he said, are currently the most important environmental public health challenges in this region.

“In our time, we have seen the impact of environmental degradation. As we progressed, we released a huge amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases leading to a warmer climate.

“Rising temperature melts glaciers, causing a rise in sea levels, leading to coastal erosion, change in the weather patterns and so much more.

“In our case, this could spell danger to our coastal towns, where they are at risk to be inundated in years to come. Just as recently as the end of 2021, rapid but poor urban planning too caused flash floods to inundate towns and homes, resulting in loss of life and the occurrence of waterborne diseases among victims.

“And the melting of the glaciers potentially releases millions of possible ancient microbes, which could spell trouble for humans. It could be another pandemic in the making, as we might not have the immunity against the microbes.

“And deforestation and incessant clearing of land has deprived wildlife of their habitat, making our contact with them to be more frequent. A zoonotic leakage could occur as some of these wildlife harbour microorganisms that cause diseases in humans,” he said.

He added that the current COVID-19 pandemic and other previous epidemics that involved coronaviruses, it seems, might have initiated from human close proximity with the microorganism either through raw food sold in the market or even cross contamination.

“And the amount of masks and plastics that we throw in our rivers is not without consequences. Just recently, micro plastics were found in human lungs and the placenta – the part of the womb which is important for the growing fetus in a pregnant mother. This finding is indeed worrying. There could be long term cumulative effects to our health as a result,” he pointed out.

Needless to say, he said it seems humans direly need a more healthy environment.

“If more people were aware and the higher authorities were more concerned and took action from the highest level, we could at least mitigate the damage to our planet to reduce the risk to human’s health,” he said.

Dr Helmy explained that it must be understood that disease manifestations account for only around 20 per cent of what is being observed in a sick person.

“The environment contributes to about 80 per cent to the cause of the disease, of which genetics takes up around one per cent,” he said.

He said that about 60 per cent of existing human infectious diseases are zoonotic – diseases in humans which are brought about by animals, and nearly 75 per cent of emerging human infectious diseases have an animal origin.

“About five new human infectious diseases appear yearly, and three of them have animal origins. Because of this, we as humans need to manage ourselves, by managing the factors that lead to increased contacts with wildlife.

“In our case, we need to preserve our biodiversity and forest coverage as much as possible,” he stressed.

Clean air is important to us. Clean air does not only refer to the absence of microorganisms, but also to the absence of other environmental contaminants emitted by combustion processes such as motor cars, factories, and even indoor burning.

Dr Helmy said that not many people are aware that air pollutants contain fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and can affect the heart, indirectly causing diseases like stroke, heart disease, lung cancers, chronic obstructive lung disease and a multitude of lung infections.

“Poor air quality – both indoors and outdoors – had caused 4.2 million of premature deaths in 2016, according to WHO,” he said.

At the administrative level, he said that there is a need for policies and investments that support cleaner transport, energy-efficient homes, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management that would reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.

“Therefore, I am glad that some of these are in the pipeline or have been carried out by the Sarawak government. I am sure, these measures will be intensified to include everybody from all walks of life,” he said.

In the case of COVID-19, he said that the bare minimum that humans could do is ensure that the room or any close quarters has appropriate ventilation.

“This is especially crucial when large groups of individuals are together in an enclosed place for an extended period of time.

“Even if the air conditioner is turned on, windows and doors should be opened to allow fresh air to circulate,” he said.

Dr Helmy said the government as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are doing their part to keep the earth healthy, but there is much that can be done at the individual level.

“The first thing that we should do is to create a constant awareness that lasts long until it is embedded and enculturated within our society,” he said.

He shared that school is a good place to start instilling this awareness, however, there is a need for reinforcements of these good behaviour when the children are out of their school spaces.

“This means the place where children spend their time the most after-school – at home and the community.

“Healthy behaviour tends to dissipate over time, but it can be maintained with better group support from families and community members. “Unfortunately, this is the challenge that we face, since families and the society today are not as close knit as they were in the olden days,” he said.

The young or old, he said, should do their part. These are the immediate steps that any individual can adapt into their daily routine to keep the planet healthy:

● Use recyclable grocery bags, buy less plastics.
● Buy fresh groceries from local producers and avoid highly processed foods and beverages.
● Walk or pedal to work at least one day a week, or choose public transport.
● Stop consuming tobacco as tobacco is a polluter and killer.
● Turn off lights, the air-conditioner, the television or any electrical appliances when not in use.

“Eating healthier can also be a tool for a healthy planet. It means, we need to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods, which are those that are created using a combination of largely industrial-grade ingredients and are the end product of numerous industrial processes,” he said.

He said that it is also important to choose natural foods or foods that have been minimally processed, or foods that have been processed using traditional methods. Take more greens and reduce meat in our diet.

“I’m sure not many people are aware of the quantity of resources required to prepare a beef burger. Take water for example, one kilogramme of beef requires around 15,000 litres of water.

“Another thing that we need to do is to share our community stories on creating a healthy planet,” he said.

He added there are many notable sustainability works around us that have the potential to expand at a bigger scale, but they go unnoticed.

“To summarise, World Health Day has made us unlearn what we previously knew about human health and to see that human health is no longer a singular entity that exists in isolation,” he said.

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