Conservation Medicine: Protecting Public and Animal Health

West Nile virus, avian flu, E. coli, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), HIV – we hear these household names all the time.  These diseases are constantly in the news because they are zoonotic – shared between animals and humans.

Recently, the Saint Louis Zoo announced a new initiative: The Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM), led by veterinarian and epidemiologist, Dr. Sharon Deem.  ICM aims to better understand the causes of zoonotic diseases and how they are transmitted.  The latter part of the twentieth century has seen a significant increase in the occurrence and geographical range of zoonotic diseases, making the practice of conservation medicine imperative.

Dr. Sharon Deem with an orphaned forest elephant in an oil concession in Gabon, Central Africa. Copyright Stephen Blake.

“Unfortunately, along with this increase in wildlife associated human EIDs [emerging infectious diseases], there is the possibility that wildlife may be seen as the “bad guys” that threaten human public health,” explains Dr. Sharon Deem.  “In reality, wildlife are not the villains, but rather it is the changing interactions between humans and wildlife (e.g., illegal trade in wildlife, human populations encroaching further into wildernesses areas) that has led to an increase in EIDs at the intersection of wildlife and humans.”

Factors such as global travel, climate change, population increase, and environmental damage all play a role in the emergence of zoonotic diseases.  Many of these factors tend to bring humans and wildlife closer in proximity, which can be dangerous.

The illegal trade in wildlife results in a number of orphaned animals. Close contact between these animals and humans may result in the sharing of zoonotic pathogens. Copyright Dr. Sharon Deem.

“A holistic approach to health is necessary so we may better understand the disease-related challenges and offer preventive measures that minimize the impact of infectious and non-infectious diseases on animals, humans, and the ecosystems that support life on Earth,” explains Dr. Deem.

The ICM’s approach is to merge animal and human health research to protect both human and animal wellbeing.  Zoos play an important role in this, according to the ICM, by:

  1. Acting as a sentinel for emerging diseases of humans and animals in urban areas
  2. Participating in epidemiologic studies of diseases concerning conservation
  3. Ensuring healthcare of zoo wildlife continues to improve to make sure breeding programs contribute to biodiversity sustainability
  4. Monitoring the diseases of free-living wild animals that could cross paths with humans or domestic animals
  5. Participating in the discovery of life forms and contributing to comparative medicine

    Working elephant in Myanmar. Copyright Dr. Sharon Deem.

Without studying the connections between human, animal, and environmental factors, we could be missing out on important discoveries that might prevent future outbreaks of diseases.

Elise Waugh

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