Interview with the Arctic Council’s Arctic Human Health Expert Group

11 January 2021
What is the Arctic Human Health Expert Group? What issues and projects is it involved in? Learn about this Expert Group of the Sustainable Development Working Group through this interview with its Chair, Eydís Kristín Sveinbjarnardóttir.

The Arctic Human Health Expert Group (AHHEG) works under the direction of the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). The Expert Group is an integrated research community with interest in circumpolar community health and wellness. It supports SDWG by providing expert advice and conducting projects and activities related to human health in the Arctic.

We spoke with Eydís Kristín Sveinbjarnardóttir, Chair of AHHEG, about her experience, AHHEG’s goals, the key projects the Expert Group is engaged in and what inspires her about AHHEG’s work.

What is your background, and how did you become Chair of the Arctic Human Health Expert Group?

I am a psychiatric nurse, graduated in 1989, with MSN from University of Pittsburgh in the USA. I have a PhD from University of Iceland that I defended in 2012 in the field of family interventions and support in psychiatry. I was a manager in different positions at the Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik from 1997 until 2016 when I was offered the position of Dean and Associate Professor at the School of Health Sciences at University of Akureyri.

The University of Akureyri is an Arctic school located in northern Iceland. When it was Iceland’s turn to Chair SDWG, the Ministry of Health turned to the University of Akureyri for chairing its Arctic Human Health Expert Group and my name came up. I accepted the position and started chairing in 2019.

What is the goal of the Expert Group?

AHHEG supports SDWG’s human health agenda by providing advice, proposing projects and priorities for SDWG to focus on, and assessing proposals to advance the circumpolar human health knowledgebase. AHHEG’s overarching goal is to advance knowledge that helps empower communities around the Arctic to develop practical responses to human health issues. Another goal is to be a resource to the Arctic Council and its Working Groups on broader cross-cutting health research and activities.

Members of AHHEG include a range of circumpolar human health professionals involved in, for example, health systems, human biology, mental health and social, cultural and economic aspects of health. AHHEG members are often involved in research, and they can point out knowledge gaps that exist. AHHEG helps create greater collaboration between Arctic Council Working Groups, Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants, academic institutions and other relevant circumpolar organizations. It is our goal that these connections advance the development of sustainable and integrated approaches to human health issues.

Another main goal is transferring expert knowledge into communities. I think we talk too little about knowledge transfer and ways to get that expert knowledge into practice. The transferring of science and research into meaningful actions at the community level is something we hope to strengthen.

Everyone is realizing how everything is connected, and we need to look at the connectedness when addressing the pandemic. For example, if you look at patient care, there is a need for telehealth for small Arctic communities because of a lack of resources. But in order to introduce telehealth, you need connectivity, which many of these remote places also lack. So, we cannot talk about human health without also talking about infrastructure and connectivity.Eydís Kristín Sveinbjarnardóttir

What are some of the key issues and topics the Expert Group addresses?

The Arctic Human Health Expert Group is of course concerned with all health issues. But there really are two sub-groups within AHHEG – one group with a goal of monitoring diseases, researching disease spread and thinking about how climate change affects human health, and another group focused on mental health.

The sub-group focused on disease monitoring works with the Arctic Council Working Group Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’s Human Health Assessment Expert Group to map and monitor diseases. While there are institutions within all the Arctic States that have their own mapping systems, this initiative is important because the information is collective and consistent for all States and we can discuss easily between nations. It was important we had this experience before Covid-19. And this sub-group was really prepared when Covid-19 emerged because of their interest in how infectious diseases are contagious and spread.

The Covid-19 topic has really taken over the sub-group focused on mental health as well. In the long term, Covid-19 influences mental health. This group also supports SDWG’s suicide prevention projects. A recent one called Circumpolar Resilience, Engagement and Action Through Story (CREATeS) supported communities and engaged Indigenous youth in a digital storytelling format with the goal of reducing suicide and fostering mental wellness. Now SDWG has a project called Local 2 Global that has a focus on facilitating connections between circumpolar communities working to prevent suicide and support mental wellbeing of Arctic youth and communities.

Recently, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, AHHEG and SDWG’s other Expert Group, the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group (SECEG), have sort of joined forces. Everyone is realizing how everything is connected, and we need to look at the connectedness when addressing the pandemic. For example, if you look at patient care, there is a need for telehealth for small Arctic communities because of a lack of resources. But in order to introduce telehealth, you need connectivity, which many of these remote places also lack. So, we cannot talk about human health without also talking about infrastructure and connectivity.

AHHEG is also involved with the co-production of Indigenous knowledge and western science. Arctic communities that participate in projects have told us that they know what is best for them, and that we as an Expert Group should support them. On one hand you have Expert Group researchers and industry experts, and on the other you have Indigenous Permanent Participants that bring their lived experiences and knowledge, and it creates such a dynamic and fruitful discussion. It shows that although some experts may have written an article or a literature review, if you have not lived in those communities, you do not have the full picture.

What are some key projects the Arctic Human Health Expert Group is involved in that we should keep an eye on?

One Arctic, One Health is a longstanding project, and the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced why we have a need for this work. The project looks at the human, animal and environmental health nexus, and it is designed to strengthen circumpolar knowledge and practice on disease outbreaks, natural disasters and related phenomena. The project is broad and each year we do something new. For example, we have been discussing establishing knowledge hubs called “One Health hubs” where we have more structured information sharing between Arctic States.

The Local 2 Global project is another one to keep an eye on. AHHEG is focusing on childhood experiences and how that affects the mental health of people. We are also focusing on resilience, and we are always gaining more local knowledge about how to deal with these problems.

AHHEG had a role in putting together the Arctic Council’s Covid-19 in the Arctic Briefing Document for Senior Arctic Officials. Over 50 researchers affiliated to the Arctic Council contributed to this document, which drew together information about the impact of Covid-19 on the Arctic. This was very important to get a broad picture of the unique risks and challenges faced in the Arctic brought on by both the pandemic and the restrictive measures meant to contain it. AHHEG is committed to continuing to support the Arctic Council’s work related to COVID-19 in the Arctic.

Peoples’ social and economic status affects their health and wellbeing – housing, infrastructure, connectivity – basically everything in the environment affects your health. It inspires me to work on those issues and see how it can gradually change people and communities for the better.Eydís Kristín Sveinbjarnardóttir

What inspires you about the Arctic Human Health Expert Group’s work?

I thought the work that went into the Covid-19 briefing document was really inspiring in the way it brought all of these experts across different disciplines out of their huts so to say. The willingness to collaborate and contribute, all while also holding full time professions and surviving their personal lives as the pandemic unfolded, was amazing and inspiring. It was a lot of work, but very rewarding in the end.

Secondly, SDWG and AHHEG work with difficult issues and vulnerable populations. Peoples’ social and economic status affects their health and wellbeing – housing, infrastructure, connectivity – basically everything in the environment affects your health. It inspires me to work on those issues and see how it can gradually change people and communities for the better. The working experience in the Working Group is rewarding, but it also has a higher inspiration in improving peoples’ lives.