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Oceans and human health

The oceans, as a source of food, recreation and medicine, affect human health in a variety of ways. For example, exposure to or ingestion of pathogenic microbes, pollution, or algal toxins can cause human illness. Conversely, the oceans benefit human health as a source of overall well-being and new medications.

Studying and understanding the ocean is crucial for maximizing ocean health benefits and reducing health risks. Ocean observations help policy makers and managers develop strategies to respond to and manage public health threats. Observations also help promote sustainable interactions with our oceans and coasts and help scientists discover new ocean derived pharmaceuticals.

Infectious disease

Human illness from marine-borne pathogens primarily occurs from ingestion of contaminated seafood or exposure of open wounds to seawater. Pathogens include indigenous marine species, such as vibrio bacteria, as well as non-marine species originating from human and animal fecal contamination. Regular and sustained monitoring of environmental conditions and water quality is crucial for reducing and managing the risk of human illness from marine-borne pathogens.

Filter-feeding shellfish can concentrate pathogenic bacteria and viruses in their tissues and cause illness when consumed.

Ocean derived pharmaceuticals

Nature has long been a source of pharmaceuticals with over 50% of today’s marketed drugs being produced from natural extracts or synthesized natural products. The ocean is one of the most promising sources of new drugs with over 20,000 biochemical compounds having been isolated from marine organisms since the 1980s. Substances derived from marine organisms are being tested for a variety of purposes including asthma, cancer, bacterial infections, viral infections and pain management. Studying the marine environment and protecting marine organisms and biodiversity will aid in the discovery of new marine-derived chemicals and ultimately benefit human health.

cone_snail

The pain killer Ziconotide was derived from the venom of a marine cone snail.

Harmful algal blooms

Large growths or “blooms” of single celled algae are a common occurrence in the marine environment. Under certain conditions, algal blooms become harmful by producing toxins, reducing oxygen levels, clogging fish gills, or smothering corals. These harmful algal blooms can affect human health by contaminating seafood and producing airborne toxins. Ocean observations allow scientists to monitor and, in some cases, forecast harmful algal blooms allowing managers to take actions such as closing beaches or fisheries in impacted areas.

One illness caused by harmful algal blooms, paralytic shellfish poisoning, can be lethal. Symptoms include gastrointestinal distress, tingling, numbness and respiratory failure.

One illness caused by harmful algal blooms, paralytic shellfish poisoning, can be lethal. Symptoms include gastrointestinal distress, tingling, numbness and respiratory failure.

Related GEO Societal Benefit Areas

Biodiversity and Ecosystem SustainabilityPublic Health Surveillance