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Study Suggests Conservation Policies Could Improve Human Health (Prof. Subhrendu K. Pattanayak)

June 16, 2015

From the Duke Global Health Institute: 

Measures taken to protect ecosystems and the environment could deliver public health benefits, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While research has shown that nearly one quarter of the global burden of disease can be attributed to poor environmental quality, very little scientific evidence supports the claim that conservation of ecosystems protects benefits human health. 


To address this knowledge gap, professor of global healthenvironment and public policy, Subhrendu Pattanayak and colleagues analyzed an extensive set of data consisting of observations on disease, climate, demographics, public health services and drivers of land use change in 700 municipalities within the Brazilian Amazon over four years. 

The setting proved to be ideal because it has undergone rapid land-use change and significant conservation efforts, and there is extensive public data that are more precise (for example, at the municipal level) than previously considered. 


Pattanayak and his team found that the incidence of malaria, acute respiratory infections and diarrhea was significantly lower in areas near strict protected areas such as parks and other reserves that preserve biodiversity and tightly restrict human use. By contrast, the incidence of malaria was higher in “sustainable use” protected areas where people were allowed to enter and harvest forest products.  Results vary by disease and for other types of protected areas, road development and mining.

“Our findings suggest that strictly protected areas may serve as a barrier to disease transmission,” said Pattanayak. “Although these relationships are complex, we believe that by protecting and preserving biodiversity, we could also derive the double win of public health benefits.”


This study could have broad implications because it examined a wide set of diseases and a host of potentially contributing factors to disease. “Many of these factors have previously appeared separately in disease models, but not all together in one model,” said Pattanayak, commenting on the breadth of data that he and colleagues examined, as well as their efforts to model multiple drivers and account for confounding factors.

“Certainly the causal chain of environmental health is neither short nor simple,” said Pattanayak, “But my colleagues and I believe our methods and this study help add important links in this chain. As such, the paper will contribute to the work of the Rockefeller Foundation/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, which will launch its report on July 16.”

In addition to Pattanayak, the team included researchers from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the Inter-American Development Bank in Brazil, the South Asian Network of Development and Environmental Economics in Nepal, North Carolina State University and the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment in Brazil.

Access the study here.