November 02, 2018

Have you ever wondered how your health and the health of animals and the environment are connected? Many of the conservation challenges that threaten wildlife species—from infectious diseases like the Zika and West Nile viruses to plastics in the oceans—also impact animal and human health.

Animal health, human health and conservation go hand-in-hand. In our work, we study all these aspects to better understand the interconnectedness of health for all life on our planet. This defines the concept of One Health. November 3 is #InternationalOneHealthDay


Human Health

One Health includes human health. Therefore, we include human health in all our studies. For example, through the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, we connect young people to nature—a known health boost. To date, the Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM) team has taken over 1,000 students into the woods to study box turtles! The ICM team also studies how humans may have direct health benefits from a visit to the Zoo. Read about our first study, published in 2015, at the following link. We are currently analyzing data from the second study. Stay tuned—a visit to the Zoo might be just what the doctor ordered! 

Snapping Turtles

You may be familiar with the work of the Institute for Conservation Medicine and that of our partners for box turtle conservation in Forest Park. However, did you know we have expanded our research in Forest Park? We’re not just box turtles anymore! We also now study the movement and health of snapping turtles. Why such a turtle focus? Turtles and tortoises across the planet are threatened with extinction. Each species experiences similar threats, many of which come from the growing human footprint. Therefore, we want to know if snapping turtles that live in Forest Park are healthy or if they have any diseases. If you see us close to one of Forest Park’s waterways with our tracking equipment, you may just catch a beep from one of the three snapping turtles—Thor, Loki and Raptor—that have telemetry devices on their shells. 


Camels are rapidly becoming the “new cow” in northern Kenya due to their ability to thrive in drought conditions and still produce plentiful, nutritious milk. In response to this ongoing camel boom, the Institute for Conservation Medicine developed a #OneHealth project in Laikipia County, Kenya, where we have been studying the health of dromedary camels and wildlife since 2012. With the information gained, we can improve public health by raising awareness of diseases that camels can give to people through drinking unpasteurized milk. We also can use this information to help conservation by reducing the risk of camels transmitting diseases to Kenyan wildlife. Our next step is this spring when, along with collaborators from the International Livestock Research Institute and the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program, we will conduct an intensive training in camel health for Kenyan veterinarians. Through this training, we can share knowledge and tools necessary to address this #OneHealth challenge facing wildlife and people in Kenya today.

ZikaZoo Project

The ZikaZoo Project is a partnership between the Institute for Conservation Medicine and Brazilian institutions. Through this project, we conduct research and provide outreach education on the importance of wild animal conservation for public health. Much of this research has focused on the risk of arbovirus infection (e.g., Zika, Chikungunya, yellow fever, dengue and West Nile virus) in wild animals in Brazil and understanding how these viruses may be shared among wildlife and humans. Another key component of the ZikaZoo Project is knowledge and cultural exchange between our U.S. and Brazilian partners. In September and October, Emily Dunay, a fourth-year University of Pennsylvania veterinary student, visited Dr. Lilian Catenacci and the team in Brazil. Emily participated in veterinary work in Brazilian zoos, field work with armadillos and pumas, and, of course, the ZikaZoo Project. Emily also gave lectures to the team and Brazilian vet students about her work as an ICM intern on human diseases that spill over into great ape populations, as well as life as a veterinary student in the U.S. The ZikaZoo Project and the sharing of next generation veterinarians, between the US and our friends in Brazil, are part of the One Health solutions that we need to address the global challenges facing animal, human and environmental health.


For us, One Health means thinking outside of the box. Animal health, human health and conservation go hand-in-hand, as we’ve explained. But what you don’t usually think of when animal conservation comes to mind is….molecules! Did you know that a lot of conservation research happens in the laboratory? One of the many disciplines involved in One Health research is molecular biology and genetics. Every organism has DNA, which can tell us a lot about its ecology, evolution and health. At the Institute for Conservation Medicine, we are using molecular tools in many of our programs. We use these tools to diagnose pathogens in our box turtles and snapping turtles from samples we’ve taken in the field. With collaborators at Washington University School of Medicine, we’ve found new viruses in free-living wild lemurs in Madagascar. We’ve also sequenced the three-toed box turtle genome, which can answer a lot of questions about population dynamics and behavior. On top of that, we have piloted our first-ever mobile molecular diagnostics lab at our research site in the Galapagos. Our plan is to be able to take this technology to all of our research sites so that we can test for disease wherever endangered species live. One Health is about using all of the tools in the toolbox, as well as working with people in different professions to ensure healthy animals and healthy people! 

The Ties That Bind

This past year in April, Institute for Conservation Medicine Director Dr. Sharon Deem gave a TEDx talk as part of the “Think Well: HealthCare Out Loud” TEDx Gateway Event at the Sheldon in downtown, St. Louis. In her talk, “One Health: The Ties That Bind,” Dr. Deem reminds us of how the health of all life is connected. From why we need bats (think margaritas!) to how plastics in the environment may change the sex of turtles. This short video is an overview of One Health, sharing examples of how the health of all life is interconnected. Most importantly, Dr. Deem provides tips on actions each of us can do—today, right now—to help wildlife species and to care for planetary health.