Prof Oura and Arianne Brown-Jordan hard at work in the lab

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By Dr Adana Mahase-Gibson

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, smallpox, 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 per cent 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 defence; 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. Prof 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, among others.

To sum it all up; microbes matter. 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. 

Prof 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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