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Zoobiquity

Zoobiquity

Zoobiquity – making sense of a connected world.

Bet’cha didn’t know that cute koalas get chlamydia. Breast cancer, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), is the most common cancer in women. Breast cancer can also affect jaguars, kangaroos, dogs and beluga whales.  Clinical depression and eating disorders are seen in gorillas as well as humans.

These are a few examples of the parallels in human and animal health. They are explored in depth in a fascinating book, “Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health” written by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Kathryn Bowers, a science journalist.

What is Zoobiquity?

The term was coined by the authors. They squish together two words; zoology, the study of animals and animal life and ubiquity, meaning everywhere. Zoobiquity’s website explains, “Zoobiquity springs from a simple but revelatory fact: Animals and humans get the same diseases, yet physicians and veterinarians rarely consult with one another. Zoobiquity explores how animal and human commonality can be used to diagnose, treat, and heal patients of all species.”

Making sense of human and animal connections

As a One Health practitioner and a Veterinarian, I see zoobiquity as another set of terms and ideas that help us make sense of the increasingly connected nature of our health. There are many parallels in human and animal health. Is this a revelation? Certainly not. Evolutionary biologists, veterinarians, ecologists, comparative pathologists and those interacting with both humans and animals understand we share common ancestry. It’s obvious that a chicken or pig can spread diseases to humans. Similarly, non-infectious diseases such as diabetes, obesity and depression show up in both human and animals.  Zoobiquity’s website points out, “Veterinarians see all these conditions in animals. They treat them in a vast range species—including pets like cats and dogs but also birds, fish, snakes, and wild animals too. And they have ways of addressing them that human doctors don’t know about. Zoobiquity encourages patients, doctors, dentists, and psychologists to access the vast, untapped information and experience of veterinarians and wildlife biologists…and of the animals, living, playing, mating, and healing in their natural environments.”

Human Doctors usually don’t step out of their batting crease. Typically, collaboration between human and animal doctors is rare. Generally, we stick to the maxim that there are people diseases and animal diseases. This is a narrow-minded view of health. To better understand our own health and fragility, our cousins living just down the evolutionary street can teach us a lot. Zoobiquity suggests an interdisciplinary approach when looking at disease. “Drawing on the latest in medical and veterinary science—as well as evolutionary and molecular biology—Zoobiquity proposes an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to physical and behavioral health, including cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and many other sub-specialties.”

Health commonalities

In a New York Times article, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz recounts her experience working on a variety of human maladies. She had also consulted on occasion with the Los Angeles Zoo where she was struck by the similarity between veterinarian’s rounds, and the rounds of medical doctors in human hospitals. Intrigued, she asked some questions: “Do animals get (fill in the disease)?” She explored from melanomas to heart problems, and case upon case indicated yes; animals and humans share health issues. Chapters in the book demonstrate this by looking at a human disease or condition and its animal counterpart. The book starts off with a typical human condition; fainting. On the animal side, some doggies experience fainting (the medical term is vasovagal syncope) even at the sight of a needle. The physiological response in both humans and animals is due essentially to the flight or fight mechanism. Another chapter, “Grooming Gone Wild”, looks at human self-harm (called cutting) and compares it to compulsive behaviours in animals such as dogs who obsessively gnaw or lick themselves. The book is full of compelling case studies from addiction to cancer that show parallels between human and animal worlds. The term, “We are all animals” takes on a whole new meaning.

Zoobiquity, like One Health or EcoHealth, rests on collaboration across sectors. These approaches offer hope for many of the global health issues we are facing. I encourage those of us who are passionate about health to delve deeper. To my fellow medics, both human and animal, appreciate and embrace our evolutionary links; our undeniable connection to the animal kingdom. Our human health is intimately connected to and dependent on healthy animals and a healthy environment.

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Investing in One Health in Trinidad and Tobago

Investing in One Health in Trinidad and Tobago

One Health – A call to action

“Today microbes travel almost as fast as e-mail and financial flows. Globalization has connected Bombay to Bangkok to Boston. There are no health sanctuaries. No impregnable walls between developing and developed nor between the sick and healthy. Problems halfway around the world become everyone’s problem.”- Gro Brundtland

Infectious diseases have always been a part of our lives. Some of the worst in human history, and in today’s headlines, are linked to animals. These include the plague, small pox, tuberculosis, and even measles. These diseases are zoonoses. PAHO’s definition of a zoonosis is “any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa.”

Like Justin Bieber’s inexplicable rise to stardom, we also face emerging diseases that seem to come out of nowhere. The WHO defines an emerging disease as “one that has appeared in a population for the first time, or that may have existed previously but is rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range.” Approximately 60% of these emerging diseases are zoonotic; shared by animals and people. Many of them, such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Nipah virus, and swine influenza, could have disastrous global human, economic and ecological impacts.

In T&T we face zoonoses every day. We are not immune. God may be ah Trini, but He won’t keep us healthy. Dengue is always buzzing around; even the Prime Minister got it. Chikungunya is right on our doorstep and recent cases of swine flu caused squealing by pigs and the public.

Emerging zoonoses cannot be managed with pills and vaccines alone. Doctors don’t have all the answers. Emerging diseases come from our rapidly changing and increasingly connected world. They are emerging and changing faster than our science and institutions can respond. We need a new approach.

One proposed approach is called One Health. Its foundation is that human, animal and ecosystem health are inextricably linked. According to the One Health Initiative it is “a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals, and the environment.” Health has many dimensions and is shaped by a broad swathe of social, economic and ecological factors. Put simply this means doubles vendors, doctors, farmers, veterinarians, ecologists, social scientists, economists and rum shop limers must all work together for a healthier T&T.

In T&T, the UWI’s School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) is pioneering a One Health approach. The SVM has embarked on a collaborative, applied research project funded by the UWI Research, Development and Impact Fund. Chris Oura, a Professor in Veterinary Virology and his postgraduate students  Arianne Brown-Jordan and Jamie Sookhoo are working to set up a broad-based surveillance system of avian (poultry and wild birds) and swine populations to identify the presence of various potentially high-impact viruses. Brown-Jordan explains that many of the viruses are zoonotic and can affect human health. Others could decrease productivity in our livestock industry.

Professor Oura explains that we know very little about the viruses circulating in avian and swine population in T&T. “We are trying to identify what’s there; the baseline pathogens; which viruses are circulating and causing disease. From there we can then try to characterise what we have and whether we are doing the right thing when it comes to control measures.” He explains that birds can act as carriers of various viruses that cause disease in wild birds, poultry, livestock and human populations. Since we also eat these animals, it’s critical to pay attention to their health status. An important first step to being prepared for the risk of disease is to know what we have. Forewarned is forearmed. Thus, pigs and birds are a first line of defense; standing guard at the gate as sentinel species for infectious diseases; providing an advance warning to humans.

Because the project takes a One Health approach, it is highly dependent on many partners for success. Professor Oura and his team are working closely with poultry and swine farmers, the Ministries of Food Production and Health, the Livestock and Livestock Product Board, Poultry Associations, Poultry Surveillance Unit, Wildlife Division and Pointe-a-Pierre Wildlife Trust amongst others.

To sum it all up; microbes matter. Mrs. Brown-Jordan is passionate about microbes. As she explains, she worked previously with humans and microbes. But some microbes don’t see much difference between animals and people. So for Brown-Jordan it is natural to follow her microbes and work at the human-animal interface.

Professor Oura and his team see our world from a microbe’s point of view. Their work shows us how closely we are connected to animals and ecosystems. Projects like theirs demonstrate the importance of a One Health approach and why we need to work together for a healthier, happier T&T.

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Food Sex and Salmonella

Food Sex and Salmonella

Food and sex: have you been ‘eating around’?

"Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat." —Betty Fussell

In T&T we pride ourselves on our exquisite cuisine. Nothing brings people together like a food lime. If we need to raise some funds, see how fast we hold a bar-b-que or curry-que. We love our bellies. As the saying goes; “Is better belly buss than good food waste.”

There is something sensual about good food. It’s more than just a lime with friends. The way a cool drink slips down your throat on a warm day; the way a hot curry makes you sweat. It’s not a big jump to start comparing great food with sex. In Trinidad, we can turn to the wisdom of The Mighty Sparrow: “We cyar make love on hungry belly.” Or, take a glance at those Haagen Daas billboards on the highway. Even KFC advertises a sensual experience.

In his book ‘Food Sex and Salmonella’, Dr. David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian, scientist, epidemiologist and popular author, takes the comparison between food and sex a step further. He describes eating as “Quite literally, turning the world outside in.” He points out that food is nothing more than pieces of the environment. We take bits of plants such as leaves (lettuce), roots (garlic), or sap (sugar), bits of all kinds of animals, from fish to fowl, and even bacteria (yogurt), and bring them inside us. Food is our very intimate connection to the living world.

As Waltner-Toews explains it, choosing bits of the environment to bring into our bodies is more like sex than we might think. “What sex is to interpersonal relationships, eating is to the human environment relationship, a daily consummation of our marriage to the living biosphere… and like sexual promiscuity and ignorance of our sexual partners, promiscuity in eating habits and ignorance of eating partners can carry great risks.”

In T&T, we’re enthusiastic about food and sex. Carnival, for instance, is dominated by all-inclusive fetes boasting the best food and drink. Where does all this food come from and what’s the real price associated with such sensual scrumptiousness? Have we been ‘eating around’?

Where are you sticking that tongue?

In T&T, thanks to globalisation, we have a lot of exotic food: Prime Canadian Angus beef, New Zealand lamb chops, St. Louis pork ribs, Italian sausages, Guatemalan strawberries, Chilean kiwis and made in the USA broccoli. The variety is astounding and so is our import bill, but there’s more to imports than just dollars and cents.

Looking at imported food through a lens of ecology and public health we realise there’s a lot more going on. We are engaging in long distance relationships with all of these countries; bringing bits of their environments inside ourselves.

There is also an invisible trade occurring; the microbes (e.g. viruses, bacteria and parasites) that are tagging along for the ride. We import a lot of food from Latin and South America. What agricultural system are they using? Are banned pesticides being sprayed in order to get strawberries to PriceSmart?

Here’s another kicker. Many of us have no real idea where our food comes from. Labelled foods do not necessarily give an origin but rather where they are reformulated or packaged. You might think you are eating food made in the USA when the actual ingredients are from China. Waltner-Toews likens this to having sex with a blindfold on. “Reducing foods from biological entities with specific ecological histories to tradable commodities defined by price, fibre, fat or protein content has resulted in an abusive relationship with our natural environment.”

We don’t have to look as far as other countries to talk about eating promiscuously. Dead fish have been washing up on our shores from the Gulf of Paria following the recent Petrotrin oil spill. What does this mean for our health, or the fishing industry in T&T?

Every time you put a piece of New Zealand cheese in your macaroni pie you’re about to get personal with some strange environment. Have you asked the right questions before you begin to get intimate? How safe are your partners? 

This is not an excuse for an extreme weight-loss diet of lemongrass and mango that you grow in your own yard. We can all keep eating every day and enjoying great Trini cuisine. Waltner-Toews is simply reminding us that we are a part of nature. We have to be responsible in our eating habits. What happens to our food and the environment in which it is produced is intimately connected to us. As Waltner-Toews explains: “We need to find better ways to take better care of our food partners … We need our food more than our food needs us; our relationship is not a one night stand.”

To find out more on Food, Sex and Salmonella and human-animal diseases, check out Dr. David Waltner-Toews at www.davidwaltnertoews.com

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One Health Aquatic Ecosystems

One Health Aquatic Ecosystems

One Healthy, Watery Caribbean

As a medical professional, I always cringe when I hear about a creepy new disease emerging in some far off land. Gone are the days when we could say: “Nah, that is only in Asia or Africa, Trini people safe!”

In our increasingly connected world we get both the good and the bad. The good includes exotic fruit from Latin America, beef from Canada, milk from Germany, clothing from China, shoes from Italy and so on. Along for the ride are ‘the bad’; the world’s best travellers; the microbes and other organisms hitching rides through our global trade. They travel on our food, through our bodies and via our animals.

Global to local

In sweet T&T we are now faced with problems that we thought would never show up in our back yard. Lionfish, an invasive species found literally on the other side of the world, is now at home in our waters, putting pressure on our already declining fisheries. We panicked when we suspected bird-flu was here; a virus first seen in China. More recently, the Chikungunya virus, first described in Tanzania, has crossed many borders and has made its home throughout the Caribbean. It is now here.

These problems are complex. They can’t be solved with a cool new app. What can we do?

One Health

One Health is an approach that offers hope for dealing with global issues that affect us locally. According to Dr. Carla Phillips, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM), “One Health is about recognising that human, animal and environmental health are all intricately connected and that no one professional group possesses all the skills needed to effectively address the threats that face humans, animals and the environment. However, together we can make the difference.” 

One Health emphasises a holistic approach that is collaborative and integrative. It provides a way to make sense of the many sides of health for humans, animals and the environment.

In T&T, One Health is being pioneered through the SVM. Dr. Phillips along with USA-based Drs. Cindy Driscoll and IIze Berzins facilitated the first One Health Caribbean workshop at the SVM on June 24 and 25th, 2014. The workshop focused on the conservation of aquatic ecosystems from a One Health perspective. It attracted participants from across the Caribbean and from various sectors locally, including energy, education, food and agriculture and the environment.

Why focus on aquatic ecosystems?

In a way, each of us is an aquatic ecosystem. We are made up mostly of water. Water flows in and out of us all the time. It flows in when we drink. It flows out through sweat, urine and tears. Water is essential to life. We can survive without food a lot longer than without water.

If we’re interested in being healthy, we need to look at the bigger picture; at what connects us. Water connects us to each other and to our environment in a very intimate and personal way. It’s a good place to start.

A One Health Workshop

Dr. Phillips was inspired to organise the workshop following her experience with the Petrotrin oil spill in December 2013. The oil spill made people sick. It killed wildlife, and it prevented many people from earning a living. Its effects are still being felt; economically, socially and environmentally.

In Dr. Phillips’ opinion, the oil spill highlighted the interconnections between marine and coastal environments and animal and human health. Dr. Phillips and her colleagues recognised an opportunity to use this environmental disaster to highlight how a One Health approach could be helpful in addressing this and other problems. She explains that if a One Health approach had been used for the oil spill, some of the gaps that were evident during the disaster response could have been avoided.

Throughout the workshop, the facilitators demonstrated the potential uses of a One Health approach in the Caribbean.
Drs. Driscoll and Berzins emphasised that the Caribbean basin is an aquatic-based system. Many Caribbean economies are dependent on healthy aquatic ecosystems particularly for public health, tourism and fisheries.

Dr. Phillips gives vivid examples that demonstrate our connections to our Caribbean neighbours. “Fish and other seafood originating in the waters of Trinidad and Tobago end up on the plates of our friends in Jamaica. Industrial and other pollutants that enter our oceans and waterways bioaccumulate in the aquatic organisms that we humans ultimately consume. Human activities that result in environmental degradation negatively impact aquatic habitats and the organisms that live therein and ultimately impact human health and well-being.”
The One Health workshop was a first; bringing professionals together to work for a healthy, watery Caribbean. It is hoped this is the first of many more. With new challenges and diseases regularly emerging, the work of

Dr. Phillips and her colleagues is becoming increasingly important. 

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Porous Borders

Porous Borders

Diseases Without Borders

Trinidad and Tobago has territorial borders that are open to legal trade and travel. Activity is regulated and guarded but, like a sieve, many things slip through. Apart from guns, ammunition, and drugs we are indulging in a vibrant trade of the most dominant life forms on earth – microbes. Whether they travel in your nose when you come back from Miami, in cheese shipped from New Zealand, or in the flea on your friend’s new imported dog, bacteria, viruses and fungi are world travelers in our global society and, for the most part, they don’t have passports.

It’s not just T&T that has borders. From a health perspective, our bodies are full of borders. Membranes like the skin let things in and out. Our bodies’ borders are set up for regulated trade; we eat, breathe and defecate. But, like a country’s borders, sometimes something undesirable slips across.

Here’s the thing; activity across our national borders is connected to activity across our bodies’ borders.

Borders and the Illegal Animal Trade

Wildlife trafficking is a global problem; third behind drug and arms trafficking. Dealers in T&T boast on being able to get any animal your heart desires: turtles, macaws, toucans, amazon parrots, snakes, bull finches, picoplats, monkeys and pounds of wild meat. It’s not just wildlife. Also popular is the illegal trade in pedigree dogs and livestock. Some folks proudly announce that their dog was a special order from ‘down the main’. One can custom order Bulldogs, Bichons, Pugs and even Huskies for sled rides on T&T’s snowy days.

What smugglers and potential owners don’t fully appreciate is that, apart from committing a crime, they could be contributing to a major health crisis. Alive or dead these illegal animals are host to pathogens that have the potential to wreak havoc on us and our local ecosystems. Our porous national borders are connected to our bodies’ biological borders.

Zoonotic Diseases

Dengue, avian influenza, chikungunya, lyme disease, rabies, yellow fever, leptospirosis and leishmania have something in common. They are pathogens originating from other animal species. Globally, approximately 60% of emerging diseases are zoonotic. The WHO defines zoonoses as diseases or infections that are naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa. Dealing with pandemics is not a cheap undertaking. Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003? The estimated cost to the global economy was between 40-50 billion US dollars.

Lyme and rabies are diseases that affect dogs and both are zoonotic; they can spread to humans. For the moment, T&T is currently dog rabies free. Official reports also state that our local dogs are free from Lyme disease. But a few ticks on a cute Pug fresh off the boat from Uncle Pedro in Cedros could change that. Given our massive illegal animal trade, there is a high risk that diseases like Lyme will soon be a part of our lives.

When importing or exporting domestic and wild animals, permits and permission from relevant authorities are critical. For example, a dog from the USA needs ‘papers’ to travel to T&T including a health certificate from a US Veterinarian. This is an attempt to reduce the risk of foreign diseases being introduced to our local dog population. These regulations are there to help us guard against potential parasites and diseases. Avoiding health and safety checks is tantamount to begging someone with a cold to sneeze right up in your face. It’s foolish and reckless.

Actions have consequences

We are completely dependent on healthy animals and healthy ecosystems, yet every day many of us risk one thing money can’t buy. Our health is a collective responsibility and not just the burden of the State. We must get involved. For domestic animals, ask for importation permits and a document trail when purchasing pedigree breeds. Check registered kennel clubs. Better yet, adopt a pot-hound.

Stop buying baby parrots you know have been smuggled from the Amazon or songbirds from the main because they could win a competition. Report suspicious pet stores trading in illegal wildlife to Game Wardens and the Wildlife Division. Wildlife officials in particular are working diligently. Get to know them. T&T is a small place. Ask questions and demand answers. Good health is everyone’s business.

Useful numbers for reporting illegal wildlife activity

Wildlife Hotline (868) 800-HALT (4258)

Forestry Division (868) 622-3217 / 5214 / 7476

Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (868) 623-3158

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