The President of the International Federation of Environmental Health (IFEH) has called on South Africa’s government to invest more resources into environmental health.

Dr Selva Mudaly says that this section of public healthcare is often sidelined and what the coronavirus pandemic has shown – is how vital it is in the health ecosystem. Mudaly was speaking at the Health Department’s World Environmental Health Day webinar.

He says the country doesn’t have sufficient numbers of environmental health practitioners, according to international standards.

According to the World Health Organisation, the International Federation of Environmental Health and by South Africa’s standards – the country should have one EH practitioner for every 10 000 people. However, this is not the case. There is currently one EH practitioner for every 35 000 people in the country.

This figure has resulted in the IFEH asking the Department of Health and the SA Local Government Association (SALGA) to prioritise the sub-sector.

“In fact our present ratio is one in 35k we have only 1700 EHPS currently working in local government equitable share for MHS is only 3% of the budget spent for rendering this MHS service this is a reality that we have. Nevertheless the EPHS against all odds even work longer hours continue to render their essential service to deal with this pandemic so I think there needs to be more support from both national and provincial health to local government,” says Mudaly.

Below is a discussion with Dr Mudaly on the role of Environmental Health practitioners:

Importance of profession amid COVID-19 pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues around the world – the conversation about the health of the environment and the health of human beings becomes more prominent. Evaluating how nature and the spaces in which people live should be is an integral part of primary healthcare – where preventative measures are adopted. This is where environmental health practitioners step in.

Mudaly says a healthy environment can increase the prevention of diseases in humans by a quarter.

“As a fundamental component of comprehensive health systems – environmental health works to advance policies and programmes to reduce communicable and non-communicable diseases, chemical and other environmental exposures in air water and food to protect citizens and provide communities with healthier environments. Environmental health is a discipline that has the greatest impact on human health. The WHO estimates that 15 of the extra 20 years of life that we are now enjoying is compared with a century ago can be attributed to environmental health interventions,” says Mudaly.

President of SALGA, Thembisile Nkadimeng, concedes that primary healthcare facilities such as community clinics wouldn’t be over burdened if EH practitioners were utilised efficiently.

Nkadimeng, who is also the mayor of Polokwane, says during the listeriosis outbreak in 2017 it was the EH officials who were key in not only bringing it under control, but also in ensuring there wasn’t a resurgence. She has accepted that there needs to be better investment into environmental health care, even at local level.

“A number of disease outbreaks and other diseases which are costing government a lot of resources to contain are preventable and mainly from an environmental health interventions such as health education and awareness proper water quality, monitoring pollution control, health surveyance of premises and many other environmental health interventions. I believe it is now time to put this important function at the center of service delivery as a country and it is through our collective efforts that we can be able to do so,” says Nkadimeng.

Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has committed to providing the necessary resources to the sub-sector.

“I want to reassure you of our support at all times and that we as government commit to heightened collaboration and ensure that you have all the necessary skills and tools of trade to enable you to do the important work that you are doing. When we deal with these kind of pandemics or outbreaks the environmental health officers are actually are even more important than the police in the way they have to enforce some of the regulations and they have the authority and power to be able to take you into custody if you break the law,” says Mkhize.

Mkhize says it is time that the role of environmental health practitioners as law enforcers is known and understood in the country.