Conservation Medicine: The Meeting of Zoological Animals and Humans

Speaker - Sharon Deem, DVM, PhD of the Saint Louis Zoo

The One Health Initiative, which aims to merge animal and human health science to benefit both, has rapidly gained international attention and acceptance in recent years. In many ways, One Health may be viewed as an evolution from the field of conservation medicine which arose in the mid-1990s based on the realization that there is constant interplay and growing interconnections between animal, human, and ecosystem health.

Zoological park staff members have been integral players on conservation medicine teams, and the roles of zoological parks in One Health are being increasingly realized. Zoos today are much more than simple "arks" of protection for threatened and endangered wildlife and staff provide health care and conduct health studies on animals both within zoo walls (ex situ) and in the wild (in situ).

Six significant roles that zoos play in this emerging field of One Health include:

  1. Studies on diseases of conservation concern
  2. Health care for the sustainability of biodiversity
  3. Zoo animals as sentinels of disease in urban environments
  4. Disease surveillance at the interface of wildlife, domestic animals, and humans
  5. Comparative medicine; and
  6. Exploration of the diversity of life at both the macro and micro scales. 

First and foremost, zoos are species conservation organizations that strive for the sustainability of biodiversity through education, research, and management. Zoo personnel care for many of the most endangered species on Earth, providing husbandry and health care for both captive and free-living populations.

Additionally, zoos conduct studies to better understand the epidemiology of diseases that have population, and in some cases species, level impacts; often turning scientific results into conservation management actions.

Beyond the benefits gained from biodiversity sustainability, which include ecosystem services and disease prevention from the dilution effect, zoos also study diseases at the interface of animals, humans, and ecosystems. Some of these diseases are emerging in urban areas, and zoo animals have served as sentinels of emerging infectious disease issues for both animal and human populations (e.g., West Nile virus in the USA).

Lastly, studies of comparative medicine with animals in zoological collections and studies directed at exploring the diversity of all life are conducted at zoological institutions, and at many of the in situ field projects funded and led by zoos around the world. The current and potential roles of zoos in one health are best appreciated when viewed spatially with an overlay of biodiversity hotspots, disease hotspots, sites of highest extinction rates, accredited zoological parks and aquariums, and zoo funded in situ conservation programs. The zoological staff footprint extends across the entire planet and provides an underutilized, but growing, resource in efforts to ensure the health of non-human species, humans, and ecosystems globally. 

Infectious Disease

Co-Sponsors: SLUSOM, Global Health Learning Community and Infectious Disease Interest Group

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