Human Health and Ecosystem Management (HHEM)



Group lead: Paula Ribeiro Prist

Senior Research Scientist

EcoHealth Alliance, New York, USA


Renata Muylaert








Group co-chair: Renata Muylaert

Postdoctoral Fellow in Disease Ecology

Doctoral Supervisor
School of Veterinary Science

Human health is closely linked to the health of our ecosystems and is a compelling example of integrating nature and biodiversity to promote its wider value. Evidence is increasingly emerging linking environmental degradation with the loss of human health, but these relationships are complex and still poorly understood. This thematic group seeks to understand the relationships between ecosystem management, and human health, and to develop strategic research agendas to generate the knowledge needed to prevent future pandemics and include human health maintenance into policy decisions.

Human health is intimately interconnected with biodiversity and the health of our ecosystems and is a compelling example of mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystems to promote their broader value. For example, biodiverse influence the provision of natural products and genetic resources, which form the basis for both traditional medicine and modern pharmaceuticals. An estimated 70–80% of the global population depend on some form of traditional medicine for their primary health care and seventy-five percent of all antibacterial, antiviral and antiparasitic drugs approved by the United States have natural product origins (Marselle et al. 2021). Biodiversity also affects physical health - people living in more biodiverse areas and exposed to higher fungal and fauna diversity are less likely to develop allergic sensitization and to have improved lung function (Marselle et al. 2021). 

Human activity is rapidly transforming most of Earth’s natural systems. Based on this, we explore the relationships between human and ecosystem health, well-being, and biodiversity, in their most complex forms. Integrating human health objectives into natural resource management promotes positive feedback and co-benefits between ecosystem health and biodiversity conservation and can provide programmatic advantages for organizations seeking public buy-in. The main priorities of our group are:

  • Identify the strength of relationships between disease emergence and its hypothesized drivers; and apply these relationships to models for ecological restoration and rewilding.
  • Determinate the epidemiological, ecological and socio-economic indicators indispensable for the protection and/or reduction of disease risk of protected areas.
  • Justify the necessity to take into account the biodiversity and protected areas for the reduction of disease outbreaks. These include primary factors related to ecological and political aspects.
  • Evaluate epidemiological, ecological and socio-economic indicators involved in the risk of bidirectional transmission, outbreak and maintenance of diseases.

Projects and Initiatives
Promoting healthier landscapes through ecological restoration: The need for comprehensive guidelines

Zoonotic diseases represent 75% of emerging infectious diseases worldwide, and their emergency is mainly attributed to human-driven changes in landscapes: deforestation, forest fragmentation, and land use change. Although these links are becoming better understood, very few studies have investigated the outcomes, whether positive or negative, of restoration initiatives on disease outbreaks. In this project we reviewed the existing evidence linking restoration with spillover risk, identified knowledge gaps, and propose restoration management strategies that can limit the spread of zoonotic risk. We identified a large knowledge gap about the effects of restoration on zoonotic diseases, especially in tropical regions. In addition, the few studies that exist do not consider aspects that are determinant for the outcomes of restoration, such as the environmental history of the landscape and its structural characteristics. With this in mind, our conceptual model raises two important points: (1) the effects of restoration will depend on the context of the existing landscape, especially the percentage of native vegetation existing at the beginning of the restoration; (2) these effects will also be dependent on the spatial arrangement of the restored area within the existing landscape. In addition, we propose a roadmap for integrating the risk of zoonotic diseases as criteria into restoration planning, to minimize the potential adverse effects and optimize positive effects. Synthesis and application: Our results contribute to a more comprehensive landscape restoration planning that comprises multiple ecosystem services resulting in healthier landscapes for both people and nature and could be integrated into the post-2020 global biodiversity framework targets that aim at restoring ecosystems.

Integrated Nature-based Solutions to Reduce Zoonotic Risks 

Nature-based solutions (NbS), designed to address environmental challenges, have been suggested as important tools to mitigate emerging infectious disease outbreaks and even to prevent future pandemics by integrating the One Health approach. However, to date, most NbS have been targeted at climate change mitigation, with a lack of studies that substantiate the relationships between NbS and human health. Because of this important suggestion, it is essential to understand if NbS can affect spillover risk and in which configuration they should be implemented in order to be effective. To fill this research gap, we performed a literature review and draw attention to some important points that should be considered before implementing this strategy in order to have win-win benefits. We found 14 articles relating NbS and emerging infectious diseases, and most of them were evaluating NbS type 3 (n=79%) – design and management of new ecosystems – with most of them studying urban green areas. NbS type 1 – minimal intervention - appear only in two studies, and none evaluated the effects of NbS type 2 – guidelines and protocols. In addition, studies have shown that NbS may not always bring positive results for human health, with the configuration of green areas being an important factor in determining spillover risk. This opinion paper introduces a concept that goes one step beyond simply attesting that NbS can be good for pandemic prevention: we propose that it depends on how NbS are implemented. We also point out which important issues should be studied in the coming years in order to have a better knowledge about how to maximize the intended effects of NbS on human health, especially on the transmission of zoonotic diseases, and which should be the best way to implement it

Economic and health impacts of indigenous land protection in the Brazilian Amazon

Over the past few years, the Amazon basin has been facing increased frequency and intensity of forest fires, which release toxic particulate matter (PM2.5) negatively affecting human health. Indigenous territories can be important for conservation, but still little is known about how much these areas can contribute to the maintenance of human health. Here we quantified human health benefits of forested indigenous territories and estimated the economic benefits of keeping these areas protected. Between 2010 to 2019, 1.68 tons of PM2.5 were released every year, causing an incidence of 587 respiratory and cardiovascular cases in the Brazilian Amazon. At the same time, the Amazon Forest had the potential capacity to absorb 26,376.66 tons year−1, 27% of this by the indigenous territories. By protecting these areas, over 15 million respiratory and cardiovascular cases could be avoided, with estimates of $2 billion USD being saved to the Brazilian government.

Any recent publications, external links to any relevant work related to the group.

Co -leads