A big international conference due to start tomorrow (Wednesday) in Fairbanks has been cancelled because of disease fears. The One Health conference was to explain the interdependence of human, animal and environmental health, and the conference at UAF was expecting hundreds of people. Transmission of diseases like COVID-19 from animals to humans was one of the conference topics.
Most of the conference registrants are from Alaska, but many are indigenous representatives from the circumpolar north. Countries in that area have not been hit as hard by COVID-19, the epidemic disease caused by a coronavirus.
“We have 50 people from the lower 48 and 50 from foreign countries and those are impossible to tell and changing almost hourly.”
That’s Arleigh Reynolds, Director of the Center for One Health Research at UAF. He was hoarse from nine hours of phone calls to health officials and conference organizers when he explained the postponement last night.
“I spoke to Joe McLaughlin, Heidi Hedberg and Louisa Castrodale, three folks at the state Department of Epidemiology, and they mentioned that they just got off the phone with the CDC. They said they’d actually been leaving … losing sleep over the weekend about us holding a conference here this week.”
Guests from Greenland, Norway and the Lower-48 were already in Fairbanks when the announcement was made. But others from Iceland, Canada, Finland and France were on their way.
The concept of One Health looks at how closely human, animal and environmental health are connected. And how a holistic approach might lead to improved health outcomes and enhanced resilience. Veterinarians looking at zoonotic diseases that transfer from animals to humans realized they needed a broader outlook.
“It’s kind of ironic that something like the COVID-19 is reaching such a crescendo right at the time we’re gonna have this conference, because zoonotic diseases are one of the themes of the conference. This disease started out as a disease in bats.”
Workshops were to look at bridging indigenous and scientific knowledge… how climate change affects animal health… how social, environmental and cultural changes have impacted the mental health of people in the circumpolar North.
Speakers included one from the University of Washington and one from the Centers for Disease Control. Reynolds says he had already called participants from countries with Level 2 and Level 3 travel restrictions last week telling them not to come. But until Monday, thought the conference could proceed.
“You have to weigh the benefits of this conference, weight the risks. Particularly if it establishes an outbreak here in Fairbanks. Being the OneHealth conference, what we’re trying to actually understand how these things happen and how people present them and manage them. If we were to cause one, that would be pretty bad.”
The conference team is working on a plan to refund registration fees. They hope to reschedule the conference once the worldwide situation with COVID-19 has stabilized.