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Coffee with Lidwien Smit

Lidwien Smit has been serving as Professor of One Health and Environmental Epidemiology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University since 1 November 2021. She is also a member of the NCOH Executive Board. Read more about her domain of expertise, the challenges she faces, her role in NCOH and why One Health research is fascinating.

She studies the health of people and animals in the context of their environments. That’s certainly quite a challenge in the Netherlands, a densely populated country with heavy traffic and extensive livestock farming. ‘We conduct our research in real-life situations. For example, we measure air quality in and around stables and examine the health of people living nearby.’

Smit has been researching intensive livestock farming in the Netherlands and its potential health implications for local residents for almost fifteen years. Her professorship ties in seamlessly with these issues. ‘Among other subjects, we’re currently studying goat farming and its correlation with pneumonia. We’re working in collaboration with RIVM, Nivel and Wageningen University. We’ve known about the high incidence of pneumonia around goat farms since 2009, but we still haven’t found the cause. We are interested in identifying the causes of these pneumonia infections so that effective preventive measures can be designed.’

Diminished pulmonary function

In 2014, Smit and her colleagues collected a large number of samples and performed pulmonary function tests on people living near livestock farms. They are currently repeating those steps: ‘We’ve been conducting visits to those same people since the summer of 2021. It’s all been a bit of a challenge because of the pandemic, but we’ve managed to retest a thousand people. That will allow us to monitor the development of their pulmonary function over time.’

Concerns about bird flu

Efforts are also underway to design and conduct new projects in preparation of a new pandemic, Smit explains. Does the Dutch livestock sector constitute a potential risk? ‘Among other things, we’re currently studying avian flu. That’s another zoonosis that’s also been getting a lot of attention; we’re worried it might spread to humans like the coronavirus. Although that doesn’t happen often, foxes and mink were also infected during the current outbreak. That’s not a good sign. Whether the virus will actually spread to humans is another matter, but we live in a country with lots of poultry, waterfowl and people. How can we control those risks? Are there any smart technologies that would allow us to quickly measure specific viruses in the environment? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.’

Protecting the health of people, animals and the environment, isn’t it hard to reconcile all those interests?

‘That’s true. We’re operating on a pretty complex playing field with lots of different interests and financial and legal consequences. I’m mainly focused on making sure we do sound research on the potential human health effects of livestock farming. Nitrogen isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s also a public health concern and we need to make sure that’s reflected in government policy. People are becoming increasingly aware that intensive livestock farming is a growing source of air pollution in the Netherlands. Traffic is becoming relatively cleaner, but we’re not seeing that much change in the agricultural sector. An increasingly large proportion of fine dust emissions are generated by agricultural activity. As a professor, I want to draw attention to public health challenges of intensive livestock farming.’

What is your role in NCOH?

‘Since September 2022, I’m representing Utrecht University in the NCOH Executive Board. Together with UMCU we hosted the NCOH Annual Scientific Meeting 2023 in Utrecht. Apart from organising and actively participating in NCOH meetings, I hope to bring my perspective and experience in environmental science, in line with the new One Health definition that emphasises the collective need for a clean environment.’

So what makes One Health research so fascinating?

‘It’s mainly about the diversity. We’re constantly facing new problems that require a new approach. For example, there was a COVID-19 outbreak among minks, and now we’re dealing with avian flu again. I like to take a multidisciplinary approach, to examine problems from different angles. There are also important social aspects to our research. We need to take a more preventive approach to health in order to prevent people from getting sick.’

So what do you enjoy doing outside of work?

‘I like cycling, road cycling is one of my hobbies. I love being out in the open air, and that includes hiking. On weekends I do things with the kids, and I also love reading.’

Rumour has it that you also play the piano?

‘Yes, I do! I bought a beautiful new piano from all the contributions for my inaugural lecture. Playing the piano is a wonderful way to clear my mind after a busy day.’

Part of this interview was previously published in Vetscience, a magazine of Utrecht University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

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