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What’s the Difference? Planetary Health Explained

If you’re just testing your interest in population-level health or you’re a veteran public health-er, you may be a bit bewildered by the proliferation of the various “healths”: public health, global health, planetary health, one health… The differences can be squishy, the distinctions cloudy or monumental.

No worries! Global Health NOW is here to help. In this “What’s the Difference?” series, Marija Cemma, PhD, explains the disciplines based on research and interviews with global experts. We hope this will both clarify things as well as spur discussion on social media (see our Facebook page and Twitter feed) and in the comments section below.


Planetary Health 
Planetary health—the youngest concept presented in this series—has gathered significant momentum since it first appeared in a 2014 commentary in The Lancet. The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health officially launched the planetary health concept in 2015, and by the end of the year, a consortium of over 70 universities, NGOs, government entities, research institutes and other partners founded the Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard. In spring 2017, The Lancet debuted an open-access, online-only journal, The Lancet Planetary Health, based on the concept.

Sweeping in scope, planetary health focuses on the sustainability of our civilization and the toll of inequitable, inefficient, and unsustainable resource consumption on the planet and human health. In addition to public health and environmental health considerations, it examines upstream political, economic, and social systems and calls for an interdisciplinary approach. The original planetary health manifesto and the Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health defined planetary health as “… the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to the human systems—political, economic, and social—that shape the future of humanity and the Earth’s natural systems that define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish. Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.”

The Lancet Planetary Health’s editor-in-chief Raffaella Bosurgi, PhD, MSc, breaks down the difference between public health, global health and planetary health this way: “While public health is about health protection and health promotion within the health systems and global health looks at how to improve the health of populations worldwide , planetary health broadens this discussion by looking at the societies, civilizations and the ecosystems on which they depend. Planetary health offers an exciting opportunity to find alternative solutions for a better and more resilient future. It aims not only to investigate the effects of environmental change on human health, but also to study the political, economic, and social systems that govern those effects.”

Planetary Health in Action
Bosurgi describes air pollution as a concrete example in the realm of planetary health. “WHO estimated that exposures to polluted soil, water, and air contributed in 2012 to an estimated 8.9 million deaths worldwide—8.4 million (94%) in low-and-middle-income countries. Different pollutants are linked in children to noncommunicable diseases (such as asthma), cognitive disorders and perinatal defects, and among adults to heart disease, stroke and cancer. Although environmental pollution is reaching disturbing proportions worldwide, it remains a neglected problem in national policies and on international development agendas. Pollution imposes a great cost to society—in the US alone, the price tag is $76.6 billion

Successful control strategies deployed by high-income countries include reducing exposure at source (such as removing lead from gasoline), banning asbestos, and crafting policies to reduce water and air pollution. Such strategies have proven incredibly cost-effective. Removal of lead from gasoline has returned approximately $200 billion to the US economy each year since 1980.”

Early on, the planetary health movement has attracted tremendous enthusiasm and financial support, but the test ahead will be whether it sustains that momentum, makes a compelling case to economists, politicians and other decision-makers, and, even more importantly, achieves concrete on-the-ground results.


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Image by Shehzad Noorani