The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
Something that sets Snow White apart from other Disney princesses is that she doesn’t have an animal sidekick, like Sebastian the lobster (The Little Mermaid) or Mushu the dragon (Mulan). Instead, Snow White befriends an entire community of woodland creatures, and while their dynamic is meant to be heartwarming, I can’t help but think that this 1937 animated film is a timeless advertisement for the concept of One Health.
One Health is an interdisciplinary, multisectoral, and collaborative to public health that recognizes intersections between the health of humans, animals (both wild and domestic), and the environment. The concept comes from the understanding that diseases can be transmitted between species—even between Snow White and her furry friends. The goal of One Health is to prevent disease outbreaks, enhance disease surveillance, and develop early warning systems to improve global health security, which is vital to protecting the health and safety of women and girls.
One Health has become increasingly important as interactions between humans, animals, and their shared environments continue to change. Rapid growth of the human population has resulted in expansion of communities into areas closer to wildlife (consider how Snow White relocates to the woods and begins cavorting with rodents); this introduces new opportunities for disease transmission. Women and girls living in rural areas or lacking access to water and sanitation experience even greater exposure to pathogens.
The climate crisis and land use changes (e.g., farming, deforestation) may also disturb habitats and cause or increase human contact with wildlife. In most parts of the world, Disney princesses are not actively inviting forest animals into their homes, but women and girls often do face disproportionate disease risk. They frequently act as managers of natural resources, increasing their exposure to new wildlife interactions, and they typically take on caregiving responsibilities, which results in extra facetime with sick individuals.
As a result of these and other factors, zoonotic diseases can spread faster than ever before. Today, around 75% of all emerging diseases are zoonotic (spilling over from animals to humans) or vector-borne (transmitted between infected individuals by a tick, mosquito, or other vector). Snow White would do well to take preventive measures since many of these vectors are probably prevalent in the woods and hitching rides aboard her animal companions.
A One Health approach requires consideration of all factors that impact disease emergence and spread, including antimicrobial resistance, climate change, and food and water safety. This is yet another reason why women and girls must participate in disease tracking efforts and implement mitigation practices, because they’re often the ones responsible for procuring food and water.
As environmental changes continue to occur, Indigenous and local communities are essential partners in the One Health approach. Additionally, women and girls’ roles gathering natural resources, interfacing with the environment (I’m looking at you, Snow White), and managing poultry and small livestock make them crucial actors in preventing zoonotic disease spread. Even so, research on the nexus of gender and One Health remains sparse.
While implementing One Health is a long-term process, it must begin by facilitating communication and collaboration between these key on-the-ground actors and practitioners in human health, animal health, and the environment. Such networks would be more effective at improving disease surveillance, monitoring antimicrobial resistance, and sharing information about disease outbreaks. This would help ensure that human-animal interactions remain maximally beneficial (e.g., by improving mental health), something Snow White understands well thanks to the constant companionship of her woodland creatures.
The One Health approach is incorporated into various U.S. Government efforts to promote global health security. The State Department collaborates with interagency colleagues and foreign counterparts to tackle cross-cutting One Health issues, including antimicrobial resistance, climate change, and zoonotic spillover. Other federal agencies are human and animal health practitioners in One Health skills, helping countries to disease threats, and facilitating One Health workshops to zoonotic disease risk. , , and other are being developed to raise One Health awareness, while disease tracking and interdisciplinary to outbreaks are being deployed.
While Snow White’s story should probably come with a “do not try this at home” warning, it still invites useful conversations about disease transmission between humans and animals. How could a One Health approach improve health security in your community?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.