By David J. Skorton
With roughly 5,500 individuals remaining in the wild, the black rhino population is critically endangered. To help save these iconic African giants, at risk for several reasons, the Smithsonian Global Health Program is working with partner organizations in Kenya to help stabilize the population. This is just one of its current initiatives: others focus on research, including the study of zoonotic diseases, and on sharing our knowledge with professionals elsewhere in the world. Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton recently spoke with Suzan Murray of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, who directs the Global Health Program.
Q: How does the Global Health Program support the Smithsonian’s Mission?
Murray: The program has three pillars – Wildlife Health, Research and Training – and, together, they represent how we share our expertise and resources in wildlife health and disease, including zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases, to contribute to the greater good. We use the resources we have in collaborative ways, with other organizations. A major tenet of our program is the training of professionals here and in other countries.
Q: Why is research into zoonotic diseases so important to the program?
Murray: Six out of ten infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals so research into zoonotic diseases—diseases spread between species—is fundamental to our work. We consider ourselves stewards of the “One Health” concept, which recognizes the connection between human and animal health and the environment.
Through the “One Health” program, the Centers for Disease Control encourages collaborative efforts involving multiple disciplines at the local, national and international level, and we support all of these. Preventing the next pandemic hinges on connections between animal and human medicine. We are helping to save human lives, by supporting veterinary capacity, especially in areas with limited resources.
Q: What are some of the major international projects you’re supporting?
Murray: We are a founding partner of the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Program: PREDICT, which conducts global surveillance to detect and prevent spillover of pathogens of pandemic potential. We are supporting PREDICT-2 projects in Myanmar and Kenya. We’ve made significant progress in Myanmar by establishing partnerships with two government laboratories and through field training and wildlife sample collection.
One of our Myanmar projects focuses on the pangolin, endangered as the most trafficked mammal in the world. In Kenya, we are working with partners to help achieve Global Health Security Agenda milestones, including disease surveillance, building One Health capacity, coordinating emergency operations, strengthening labs, and implementing biosafety and biosecurity training.
Through our work in Kenya, we interact with people in communities, and have a hand in developing conservation efforts by helping populations save species. Working with young women there is very rewarding. This year, we welcomed our first international research fellow, Mathew Mutinda, a veterinarian with the Kenya Wildlife Service. He and other SGH team members are researching baboons, lions and rhinos.
Q: I understand cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death in captive gorillas. As a cardiologist, I am interested in any possible connections to human heart health.
Murray: I focused on cardiology in my veterinary studies so this research is fascinating to me. We are learning that there are similarities and differences. In humans, heart disease is more coronary in nature, involving blood vessels around the heart. In apes, the problem is “fibrosing cardiomyopathy” or the replacement of heart muscle by fibrous tissue. We discovered this difference when we lost two gorillas at the Zoo.
As part of our research, we successfully employed a diagnostic test that is used for humans and we are now treating gorillas with medication that is very similar to what we give humans. This research was accomplished by a team of veterinarians and physicians, all of whom volunteered their time. Through the Global Health program, we are able to improve the care and survival of animals in the wild because of the research we conduct on animals in captivity.
The same device used to detect early warning signs of heart disease in humans will now benefit two male sub-adult gorillas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Twelve-year-old Kwame and 10-year-old Kojo are the first western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) to participate in a study lead by the Great Ape Heart Project that will help veterinarians better detect and treat heart disease, the leading cause of death of male gorillas in human care. (Video posted April 2012)
Q: With just 22 member organizations, how does the Global Health Program manage to accomplish all it does, all over the world?
Murray: We’ve only been up and running two years and growth has been dramatic, but it’s not nearly enough to do everything we would like to do as far as providing veterinary help and capacity-building in all of the countries the Smithsonian has a presence in, which is our goal. We have so many great partners and work with so many talented and gifted people.
Q: Your projects span a wide range of animal populations, from pangolins to pandas to camels to bats—how do you recruit and prepare professionals for working in such a broad range of situations and environments?
Murray: We are trying to hire people with a broad range of training in different species. In human medicine, people expand and build their knowledge and expertise through internships and residencies. In veterinary medicine, internships and residencies focus on different species. One of the country’s longest veterinary programs is our own, at the National Zoo. We have been able to hire interns and fellows through the generosity of donors, which is enabling the program to accomplish a great deal, in many locations. We provide extensive training in many areas, from human subject research to personal safety to security awareness and we emphasize the importance of protective equipment and procedures.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Murray: To be able to contribute to the health and well-being of animals and humans. I never expected to have such a rewarding career—who gets to go to work and know you are helping to save an endangered species as well as human beings?
Adapted from Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton’s recent column for the Torch (www.e-torch.org), the online source for news for, by and about the Smithsonian community.