According to Thomas Malthus’ famous theory, when populations become unsustainable, environmental factors like famine and disease act as ‘natural’ checks that reduce overpopulation. In his framework, human disease is believed to ‘protect’ the environment

But, a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that poor health and disease may actually accelerate environmental degradation.  

Chas Salmen, MD, a medical anthropologist and 3rd year resident within the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, was part of a team that studied 303 families living on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, East Africa. These people fish and farm to stay alive.

Led by University of California Berkeley’s Kathryn Fiorella, PhD, and Kenyan investigators from the Mfangano community, Salmen and colleagues looked at how disease influenced fishing behavior in a place where more than 30 percent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS.

The researchers found that during periods when families reported good health they were more likely to practice sustainable, labor-intensive fishing techniques.

However, the when these same families reported periods of illness they were more likely to use unsustainable, illegal fishing techniques that harmed fish populations and the environment. The most degrading method involved an illegal beach-net technique that harvests vast amounts of fish, no matter the size or species. Researchers suspect people favored this method when they were sick because it yields more fish in less time with less effort, critical variables to consider when you’re battling disease. The researchers hypothesize that the high prevalence of chronic HIV/AIDS greatly influences community attitudes in the region, forcing people to prioritize short-term gains over long-term environmental stewardship.

“Anecdotally we knew there was a connection and if you think about it, the connection makes sense. Poor health increases stress on environment because those who are sick will prioritize their wellbeing over the environment,” Salmen said. “We just didn’t have any concrete data until now.”

Salmen says this health-environment relationship likely applies to the island’s farmers too. He believes that when families are struggling with HIV-related illnesses, they are more likely to clear cut virgin forest for new cropland, instead of rehabilitating existing cropland through more environmentally friendly, physically exhaustive methods. It’s a wicked feedback loop that the researchers suggest is happening in subsistence communities all over the world, contributing to worsening disease, famine and environmental destruction.

This study has applications for more developed countries, too, according to Salmen.

Because HIV/AIDS is now considered to be a chronic condition that many people live with for decades, it’s not unlike diabetes, which is rampant in the United States.

While they haven’t studied the topic yet, Salmen believes that people in US cities, places like North Minneapolis where he practices, are also less likely to do things like pay attention to recycling, search for local foods, or bike to work if they’re struggling with a chronic disease. And, often these conditions require more resources to treat, adding to the idea that poor health actually hurts the environment.

Salmen added, “This data creates an even more compelling case for access to quality healthcare, because without it, we’re not going to be healthy enough to truly protect our environment. Environmental and health advocates all over the world should not see their causes in opposition. Our research on Mfangano Island suggests that we need to work much more closely together.”

This research is an extension of an innovative community partnership called the Organic Health Response, which provides vital community services to the island community. Salmen is now working with colleagues in the Department of Family Medicine to establish a formal academic collaboration between University of Minnesota and OHR to expand the impact of its research, education, and global health efforts.