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Coffee with Ludo Hellebrekers

Ludo Hellebrekers is retiring as director of Wageningen Bioveterinary Research and Wageningen University & Research representative in the Executive Board (EB) of NCOH.

What is the importance of the Netherlands Centre for One Health?

‘Whenever health changes occures in humans, animals or ecosystem, the entire system is affected. This is why the NCOH views humans, animals and ecosystems from an integrated perspective. Between us, all partners and researchers within the NCOH have an extensive range of knowledge and skills within this domain. Merging this complementary knowledge takes us further, and ultimately leads to more innovative ideas and better results, that are broadly applicable and valuable.’

What is the course for the next five years?

‘This is something we are also discussing within the EB. Looking back on these past five years, it has become clear which partner has what added value. In the coming years, we want to increase our focus on societal needs without disregarding the diversity of our knowledge. We must safeguard that broad range of expertise, as you never know what tomorrow’s needs are. Moreover, this broad range contributes significantly to innovation and deeping our understanding. The corona pandemic has given us a wake-up call, and we now want to focus on preventing future outbreaks. Should a new pandemic occur, which we can never rule out entirely, we must mitigate the effects as much as possible. That means we must focus on pandemic prevention and also on pandemic preparedness.’

‘Zoonoses and pandemics ignore national frontiers. With the present unique density of human and animal population, domesticated farm animals and our intimacy with household pets, the Netherlands is acutally a Living lab. This enables us to study and to map the consequences (for humans, animals and ecosystems) of our approach to animals. Moreover, it enables us to better assess risks and to try to soften the consequences. Our enormous knowledge pool enables us to evaluate changes in new systems through which we can make a significant contribution within the Netherlands, and we can also export our knowledge and lessons learned abroad.’

Where should we be thirty years from now?

‘We should be able to address health issues more effectively from an integrated perspective and a more balanced relationship between humans, animals and ecosystems. We should also have succeeded in improving our quality of life. During the NCOH Annual Scientific Meeting on 23 June 2022 we will see visions of that. We will merge two worlds: reflecting on the future spacial planning of the Netherlands and the qualities of ecosystems and biodiversity. How does this affect how we keep and farm animals? And the mental and physical health of humans? We cannot return to days gone by, but we can strive for a system with a more natural equilibrium.’

What is your expertise?

Wageningen Bioveterinary Research focuses on zoonotic infectious organisms and how they proliferate. We have less expertise in the human field and ecosystems. Within WUR, researchers study ecosystems and biodiversity from a social and economic perspective as well, and we also focus on topics such as livestock farming systems, animal welfare and manure and nitrate. I think it’s great to see these topics merged in the EU project proposals and WUR’s ERRAZE@WUR research programme.’

Where did your passion  for One Health start?

‘In my previous job, I was active within the Royal Netherlands Veterinary Association. We were faced with the consequences of Q-fever, bluetongue and resistance to antibiotics. It was then that the penny dropped for me that zoonotic diseases link humans, animals and ecosystems and that animal diseases therefore affect humans and the environment; they do not stop with animals and cannot be seen separately from each other. This also applies in other areas, such as for example, the concentration of antibiotics in surface water and biodiversity. The consequences of this still need to be researched further.’

What do you get out of bed for?

‘I truly believe in the added value of multi-disciplinary collaboration. In terms of results, efficiency and quality, one plus one can add up to three. You keep eachother sharp. And serendipity occurs primarily when people from different disciplines interact.’

What has the One Health approach delivered?

‘What I truly consider a success is that following the concerns over Q-fever and the evaluation by the Van Dijk committee, all parties involved got together to think about and discuss human and animal health. In doing so, we constructed an infrastructure that enables us to reach out to each other rapidly, intensively and successfully. Its value was underlined in the outbreak of the Schmallenberg virus in the Netherlands, which, incidentally, turned out not to be zoonotic after a few weeks. The benefit is that the joint One Health approach has indeed helped us to collaborate across disciplines.’

What is the current key challenge?

‘The academic world is designed around scientific quality and competition, quick publication and the acquisition of many grants and subsidies for research. We excel in many of these things, but we shouldn’t let them become a goal in themselves, however understandable. We need to focus much more on the societal impact of our research.’

Hellebrekers concludes: ‘The current, outdated scientific system hinders the sharing of data and results. It can even be harmful to future funding or one’s career. I am pleased with the Open Science developments within Dutch universities, where the Recognition and Rewards vision set changes in motion. But it is also a sign of the times. If you publish your DNA sequences on Monday, they will be read in Asia, Australia or Pakistan within minutes. And, if they publish their results first, I am no longer able to. Is not sharing data bad? Yes, it is. Because in cases of acute societal need, 36 or 72 hours can make a huge difference. We must find a balance.’

Would you like to join the Annual Scientific Meeting? Please register here.

NCOH is glad that Annemarie Rebel will succeed Ludo Hellebrekers from 1 March 2022, as manager of Wageningen Bioveterinary Research.