Microbes and Social Equity working group

What do ‘microbes’ have to do with social equity? On the surface, very little. But these little organisms are integral to our health, the health of our natural environment, and even impact the ‘health’ of the environments we have built. Early life and the maturation of the immune system, our diet and lifestyle, and the quality of our surrounding environment can all impact our health. Similarly, the loss, gain, and retention of microorganisms ⁠— namely their flow from humans to the environment and back⁠ — can greatly impact our health and well-being. It is well-known that inequalities in access to perinatal care, healthy foods and fiber, a safe and clean home, and to the natural environment can create and arise from social inequality. Here, we focus on the argument that access to microorganisms as a facet of public health, and argue that health inequality may be compounded by inequitable microbial exposure.

Ishaq et al. 2019 PLoS Biology

The Microbes and Social Equity working group was formed in 2019 to examine, publicize and promote a research program on the reciprocal impact of social inequality and microbiomes, both human and environmental. Suzanne Ishaq, Assistant Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Maine, is the lead organizer for the 25-person (and growing) group, comprised of researchers around the globe at all stages of career and with various specialties.

Initiatives

Journal special collections

We are in the preliminary stages of putting together a special collection for a scientific journal (details to follow when final approval is obtained).

Microorganisms are critical to many aspects of biological life, including human health.  The human body is a veritable universe for microorganisms: some pass through but once, some are frequent tourists, and some spend their entire existence in the confines of our body tissues.  The collective microbial community, our microbiome, can be impacted by the details of our lifestyle, including diet, hygiene, health status, and more, but many are driven by social, economic, medical, or political constraints that restrict available choices that may impact our health.   

Many human clinical conditions or diseases have been established as being related  to the state of the human microbiome.  It is known that collective social inequity can drive the prevalence, morbidity, and mortality of some of these diseases or conditions. When access to a nutritious  diet and healthcare are impeded by social inequity, these disparities can also affect the human microbiome; this can further contribute to reduced or poorly functioning microbiomes. 

Access to resources is the basis for creating and resolving social equity—access to healthcare, healthy foods, a suitable living environment, and to beneficial microorganisms, but also access to personal and occupational protection to avoid exposure to infectious disease. The emergence of the SARS-CoV2 (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered our daily lives and the availability and ability to access essential resources, which has been worsened by pre-existing social inequity. Yet, the pandemic has also highlighted the inherent social disparity among those more likely to be exposed to infectious diseases.  

This collection highlights recent investigations into beneficial and detrimental instances of microbial exposure, in the context of how social policy may mediate or deepen  disparities between and within populations. 

Virtual symposium

Similar to the special collection, the symposium highlights recent investigations into beneficial and detrimental instances of microbial exposure, in the context of how social policy may mediate or deepen disparities between and within populations. In addition to invited presentations on thematic sections, each section will involve a discussion session using smaller breakout groups, to facilitate conversations and brainstorming between attendees.  These groups will be arranged around smaller themes or research questions, and group members will identify knowledge gaps for future research, as well as list actionable steps that can be taken using existing research to promote equitable social policy.  Ideally, meeting attendees will gain knowledge, collaborators and connections, and a path forward for turning their research into evidence-based policy to support public health.

Details to follow, projected meeting date 2021.

Publications

City compost programs turn garbage into ‘black gold’ that boosts food security and social justice.” Kristen DeAngelis, Gwynne Mhuireach, Sue Ishaq, The Conversation. June 11, 2020

Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health.“ Ishaq et al. 2019 PLoS Biology (see project page)

Relevant blog posts