When we talk about One health we often think of infectious diseases. Although an integral part of One Health, the initiative stretches further than zoonotic infections; we must not forget about the important intersection between human and environmental health.
Before moving to Fort Collins for school, I lived in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I recently came across an article on National Geographic which talks about the use of open fires inside rural homes across the country, and other third-world countries like it. Guatemalans living in villages with little-to-no resources or access to education use open fires inside their houses for cooking, therefore endangering the lives and risking the health of everyone living there. Not only are these provisional stoves an obvious fire hazard but they also expose the family to respiratory illnesses and serious burns. Homes are small, usually unventilated one-room spaces, and family members breathe in the smoke whenever they are inside. Women and their children are the most affected since they are inside as the fires burn, but men have to carry the heavy wood logs on their backs for miles to bring them home for the wives to use. This puts a large strain on their bodies and leads to neck, back, and skeletal complications later on.
These practices also affect the environment, as they promote deforestation and contribute to air and chemical pollution. To keep them burning longer, families throw other materials into the fire, including plastic, rags and garbage. Not only do these contaminate the environment but they also produce harmful toxins when burned that the individuals then inhale.
Several aid groups work on installing new stoves around Guatemala and other countries with the same problem. These stoves are safer, more environmentally-friendly and efficient alternatives to the open fire. But open fires are still being used, even in homes where the new stoves are already in place. Why does this happen? Many of the families simply do not have the money to buy gas refills for the new burners, but most keep using the open fires solely out of habit.
Culture and tradition, in this case, become barriers to health and advancement. As future practitioners, public health workers, innovators or overall promoters of change, we must understand the communities we are working in and their values. It is difficult to foster change in communities where something has been done a certain way for centuries. We must, therefore, learn to work with their traditions and not against them. Can you think of solutions that are easy to implement and adopt to help the families in the rural villages of Guatemala? How can we work with individuals to caution and educate them about all the possible health and environmental risks yet respecting their traditions?
Want to read the National Geographic article? Find it here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/07/guatemala-cook-stoves/).