Research network to examine impact of ‘environmental change’ on community health

By Melissa Coade

November 17, 2021

Greg Hunt
Greg Hunt. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The federal government has committed $10 million to the establishment of the Healthy Environments And Lives (HEAL) Network that will focus on the threats to community health posed by ‘changing environmental conditions and extreme weather events’.

The national network will be open to policymakers, practitioners, researchers and community members who will collaborate to address scenarios including urban health, bushfires, food security, heatwaves and other extreme events, and biosecurity.

Health minister Greg Hunt issued a statement on Tuesday saying the network would contribute to preparedness and responsiveness capability in Australia, as well as provide international leadership in environmental change and health research.

“The complex interplay of environmental change, extreme weather events, economics and public health requires a multidisciplinary, collaborative response that can inform future policy and practice,” Hunt said.

“The HEAL network will develop the evidence, capability and tools needed to protect and improve community health, strengthen health system resilience and reduce inequities and inequalities across communities and generations.”

Australian National University professor of global health Sotiris Vardoulakis has been chosen to lead the HEAL network, which includes researchers from 28 participating institutions. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) leaders will also be integral to the efforts of HEAL, bringing a wide geographic representation for what Hunt says is a ‘uniquely Australian response’ to extreme environmental challenges at the local, regional, national and global levels. Hunt’s statement said HEAL’s research would respectfully integrate ATSI wisdom and culture with Western knowledge.

“Australians know from experience how we depend on working together to respond to global health challenges,” the minister said. 

In addition to the $10 million federal contribution to the network via a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) special initiative in human health and environmental change, HEAL partners have committed more than $6 million in cash and $8 million in-kind to set up the network.

NHMRC CEO professor Anne Kelso said the work of the network was one of the council’s strategic priorities. She added that the network would help to protect the health of the Australian community and build a resilient and responsive health system.

“[This will be done] based on strong engagement and co-design with federal and state governments, the public health and healthcare sectors, charities, communities, business and industry,” Kelso said.

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