Academics and Research

Former U.N. staffer leads social work school in ‘One Health’ initiative

“We are training future professionals to work in a field that’s rapidly changing,” says Andreas Reckhemmer. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“We are training future professionals to work in a field that’s rapidly changing,” says Andreas Rechkemmer. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The world is a far different place than it was even 10 years ago, and nowhere is that more clear than in the area of social work, where practitioners now find themselves regularly working with clients impacted by climate change, natural disasters, disease epidemics and political unrest.

Helping students at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) put all the pieces together is Andreas Rechkemmer, who holds the school’s American Humane Endowed Chair. An expert on human resilience and sustainable development who spent more than 12 years working for the United Nations, Rechkemmer is tasked with helping GSSW students see the connections linking human health, animal health and the health of the environment — the foundation of a growing global movement known as One Health.

“One Health is looking at connections and linkages between human well-being, animal health and welfare, and ecological sustainability,” says Rechkemmer, who teaches a One Health course at GSSW. “If you take something like Ebola, the virus originates from animal species in central Africa, originally, and the spread of the virus has a lot to do with the poaching of animals and bush meat consumption, which can be driven by poverty and malnutrition and is occurring mostly in fragile states where the effectiveness of governance systems is low.”

Rechkemmer also points to the recent global outbreaks of avian influenza and SARS — massive outbreaks, he says, that originated in a confluence of global climate change and human-animal connections.

“One major cause of the avian influenza epidemic in China four or five years ago was so-called ‘urban heat islands,’ a significant local increase of temperature that triggers some tipping point in the transmission of viral diseases,” he says. “Environmental changes have a lot to do with the outbreak of emerging diseases that can potentially become very threatening to humanity. What the One Health global research and policy community wants to do is study these correlations. It includes medical scientists and veterinarians, but also people from the social sciences.”

Rechkemmer also is helping GSSW students understand the far-reaching effects of climate change, not just on human health and the environment, but also on poverty and other social conditions.

“We want to train future social work students to link their social work intervention, be it at the clinical level or at the community organization level, much more with sustainability issues,” he says. “People in the United States are being affected more and more by loss of biodiversity, failing ecosystem services, shortage of fresh water supply, coastal erosion, climate change effects, etc. The impacts of these environmental changes are differentially distributed, so it’s oppressed, underprivileged, marginalized or poor populations that suffer most.”

As an example, Rechkemmer points to the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in north Denver — a previously industrial area whose soils are heavily contaminated.

“So the city of Denver tells people not to plant anything there,” he says. “And guess who lives there? It’s the poorest population, of course. Sustainable development in that context of social work means to no longer ignore sustainability factors or environmental risks and really look at those connections between, for instance, environmental degradation and poverty.”

Prior to his 2013 appointment at the University of Denver, Rechkemmer held senior positions with the U.N., including executive director of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change at United Nations University. He also served as chief science and policy advisor to the Global Risk Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Under Rechkemmer’s influence, DU’s social work school has added a concentration in sustainable development and practice and a course on human security, and this summer Rechkemmer took GSSW students with him to work at the Global Risk Forum in Davos. It’s all part of the effort to prepare students for the complex world in which they will make their careers.

“We are training future professionals to work in a field that’s rapidly changing,” he says. “These connections that traditionally were not seen as obvious, they are becoming more and more prevalent. Future social workers need to be prepared to face a host of issues and see the linkages and really ask the question, ‘Well, I’m treating someone here suffering from trauma, but that trauma may be related to facing disaster, environmentally driven migration’ — there are new types of personal issues and social issues that were not so much known 30 years ago. That’s a challenge for students to adapt to that reality, and our education has to reflect that change so that they are better prepared.”


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