Working With Health Vectors

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By Mark Lundegren


I would like to discuss the concept of health vectors with you. Health vectors are an important natural process, and a practical tool we all can use to better understand and improve modern health – notably at a group or community level, but also at a personal one too.

If you haven’t heard of health vectors before, you can be forgiven. It is actually a new term I have intentionally created to contrast with the more common idea of disease vectors. As you may know, the concept of disease vectors is an important model and tool from the fields of epidemiology and public health.

Broadly, all vectors are paths or routes. When we walk to a destination or an aircraft proceeds to a new city, we and it are following or tracing a vector. In principle, vectors can be straight or curved. And as my photo below suggests, in reality, vector pathways are often quite complex, and they even may be convoluted or circular and thus potentially self-reinforcing.


Vector Pathways – Simple In Theory, Complex And Often Interconnected In Reality

In epidemiology and public health, disease vectors are defined more narrowly as the actual paths, mechanisms, or agents that transmit diseases and other health threats or risks. For example, if a community faces health risks from malaria, food-borne pathogens, or drug abuse, the specific vectors or mechanisms of transmission might include mosquitos from a nearby wetland, area restaurants, or under-policed areas near a local highway.

By contrast, the term health vector is intended as a parallel but wider concept. It still involves specific paths, mechanisms, or agents, but as I indicated, it encompasses not only risks and threats, but also positive health promoters and opportunities as well. For example, positive health vectors might include particular sources of information, role models, and other community institutions.

Overall, and as we will explore next, health vectors are a somewhat complex but also enormously powerful tool for moving from general health awareness to specific resources or actions for increased health. For me, the concept and tool of health vectors is essential for anyone engaged in community health promotion, and it can be useful in our personal health promotion efforts as well, especially at an advanced level.

In this broadening of the idea of vectors from merely describing the transmitters of disease or health risks, as important as this may be, my goal is to equip people, communities, and societal institutions to better understand and act on the health dynamics operating around and within them, whether positive (health enablers) or negative (health limiters). Let me briefly provide a more precise and rigorous definition of health vectors, and then discuss several examples of health vectors that will demonstrate the use and power of the concept.

When I use the term health vector, I mean any mechanism or agent that carries or transmits a health enabler or health limiter to an entity. As I suggested above, and have written about elsewhere, a health enabler is anything that improves natural health or adaptivity, while a health limiter is anything that limits the potential for progressive health and adaptation. And with the somewhat technical term entity, I mean anything that is evolving and thus naturally subject to health needs and opportunities. The term entity therefore includes individuals, groups, communities, societies and societal networks, whole species, and even ecosystems.

As you can see, this definition of health vectors is quite broad, and intentionally so. It includes but extends far beyond disease transmission, and essentially includes anything that directly acts on us to limit or improve our health (with some vectors understood as more critical than others, and some as perhaps supercritical, in any setting). But what may be less clear is the use and importance of this concept and health improvement tool. So let’s turn to several examples, beginning small and gradually increasing in scope, that show how and why you might regularly and inquisitively think about health vectors in your personal and collective health promotion efforts.

> Example #1: Traditional Disease Vector – a classic example of a negative or limiting health vector is a disease-spreading agent like a mosquito or house fly. In these cases, the insect picks up an infectious pathogen (such as the water-dwelling parasite that causes malaria) and delivers it to people nearby via a bite or contact with their mucosa. Crucially, it is in this traditional sense and example of a vector that we can immediately see the power of both understanding health vectors generally and identifying them specifically. Here, genuinely harmful and often life-threatening illnesses often can be quickly and significantly mitigated, even without an ultimate cure for or solution to the underlying health threat, by more simply recognizing and acting on the vectors or agents of transmission of the health threat.

> Example #2: Nutritional Health Vector – a less recognized but still somewhat traditional example of a health vector, affecting both individuals and communities, is area food markets. Markets of course can be a vector for foodborne disease and this is a well-established area of focus by public health officials. But food markets are also potential vectors for both healthy and unhealthy foods entering into our personal and community food supplies. And while unhealthy foods are a chief contributor to chronic illness, and their mitigation is an enormous opportunity to improve personal and community health, understanding markets as an unhealthy food or chronic disease vector is still significantly overlooked in traditional public health efforts (though the current banning of hydrogenated fats is a hopeful counterexample). Importantly, and underscoring the power of a health vector focus, while it is often unrealistic or a significant undertaking for individual people and communities to ban the national or international manufacture and transport of unhealthy foods, by understanding and targeting the important local health vectors that are food markets, localities might act on this important health contributor and greatly improve area nutritional health and chronic disease risks. Practically, this might be via local prohibitions, public pressure, or ‘health tax’ levies to offset the externalities of unhealthy foods, along with popular encouragement and financial subsidy of healthier alternatives.

> Example #3: Lifestyle Health Vector – just as food markets, and local food norms or policies, are natural vectors for either improved or limited personal and community nutritional health, other aspects of local life can be direct mechanisms for the transmission of lifestyle health limiters and enablers. A common example of this is our mass media, including social media, which can be a vector for both favorable and unfavorable lifestyle ideas, trends, and norms. Again, while we personally or collectively often cannot (and perhaps should not) stop the generation and dissemination of unhealthy lifestyle ideas in the world at large, or otherwise force favorable life patterns on others around us, we nevertheless can focus and often act effectively on media content and other lifestyle health vectors as they arise. In practice, this might include responding to negative ideas and media trends in terms that resonate in our local community, and in turn emphasizing positive alternatives that better promote health in people around us.

> Example #4: Community Health Vector – to expand on these examples of health vectors, consider the broadly impacting vector, or set of vectors, that is any community’s economic system. How communities, and each of us individually, acquire and use resources often directly and significantly impacts health conditions. As such, the various components of any economy – including labor, resources, capital, and consumer markets, and their enabling infrastructure and systems – are natural and often principal health vectors in any community. Each may substantially organize or shape community life, bring specific resources in and out of a community, impose norms and demands, and impact the way a community spends its time and attention. Given this, we should expect, and do find in practice, that many of a community’s most significant health limiters and potential health enablers are a consequence of or dependant on – and thus transmitted or vectored by – its economic components or mechanisms.

> Example #5: Societal Health Vector – health at all levels of modern life is influenced, favorably and unfavorably, by many particular factors and transmitting vectors. But one of the most significant is governmental rules and regulations, and the social norms they can at once reflect and promote. In this important sense, government itself is a health vector, or a series of health vectors, and generally a significant transmitter of health enablers and limiters. Consider this the next time you have a legal means to promote your health or the health of others, face statutory impediments to progressive health action, or encounter sanctioned or state-promoted behaviors and standards that clearly inhibit health or well-being. Examples here are far-ranging, and far-reaching. They include agricultural policy, nutritional policy, economic policy, and various social welfare policies. Overall, these societal or governmental vectors take the general form of legal and institutional mechanisms for creating or organizing our personal or social infrastructure, promoting social norms and investment patterns, and enforcing models for and the content of social behavior. In these and many other areas, formal government reveals itself, unsurprisingly, to be a strong and frequent source of health vectors in all our lives, groups, and communities.

I would encourage you to explore and use the concept and tool of health vectors in your life and community. As you can see from these examples, health vectors are at once a simple idea that allows us to focus on the often more tangible and actionable carriers or mechanisms of larger health promoters and inhibitors. But health vectors are also a complex and far-reaching fact of life, and of modern life in particular. In practice, focusing on a relatively small number of  critical health vectors is often sufficient to significantly improve health conditions in our lives and communities, or in any place and at any point in time. In any short-term period, we therefore almost never need to catalog and address all of the health vectors operating within and around us, our social groups, and our larger environment – even as we may do this progressively over time, in a consciously but entirely natural quest for open-ended health and upward evolution.

As a next step, I would encourage you to deepen your knowledge of health vectors, as a prelude to acting on one or more of them in the short-term, and then other vectors in the longer-term. One way of doing this is to pick a real and important health issue or opportunity before you or your community, and then identify at least five potential health vectors underlying, influencing, or ‘transmitting’ the health effect(s) you are considering (vectors that either do or could transmit positive or negative health effects relevant to the larger health issue or opportunity you are considering).

To deepen your learning still further, next pick one or more of the vectors you identified above and then list five actual or potential health effects, again either positive and negative, that may be enabled, facilitated, or ‘carried’ by the vector – either within or beyond the scope of your initial health issue.

By exploring specific health issues and their potential vectors in this bi-directional way, you will gain greater familiarity with the concept and practice of working with health vectors. You will also thereby health yourself understand your personal and collective health conditions more concretely, tangibly, specifically, and actionably.

And you will create significant new health capacities – intellectual, practical, and organizational – to more quickly and powerfully act on the ongoing health issues and opportunities, naturally always present in all our lives and communities.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Photo: Vector Arrows

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