Listen: From zoos to zoonoses: A personal perspective on wildlife health

In this seminar Professor Anna Meredith, Head of the Melbourne Veterinary School, shares examples of her wildlife surveillance and emerging infectious disease research and discusses her aspirations for future wildlife health research in the School.

Professor Meredith joined the Faculty as Head of Melbourne Veterinary School in July 2018 from the University of Edinburgh, UK.

As a Professor of Zoological and Conservation Medicine, she has followed a career as a zoo and wildlife clinician, and a teacher and researcher in wildlife health.

This was the third Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences Dean’s Research Seminar for 2019. These seminars aim to showcase the breadth, aims, importance and impact of research being undertaken across the Faculty to a non-specialist audience.

You can watch or listen to Professor Meredith’s seminar below; slides are available in the video.

Professor Meredith joined the University of Edinburgh early in her veterinary career as a Lecturer in Laboratory Animal and Zoo Animal Medicine, which also saw her serve as veterinarian for the Edinburgh Zoo.

This and successive roles at the university allowed her to pursue an interest in conservation medicine, an interdisciplinary field which examines the relationship between animal health, human health and environmental conditions.

Professor Meredith completed her PhD on using carnivores as sentinels in 2012, following her promotion to Professor at the University of Edinburgh based on her clinical and teaching work.

Sentinel animals are typically carnivores or scavengers, which can help scientists to gain an understanding of the diseases present in an ecosystem when they are tested for toxins or antibodies – proteins produced by the immune system to neutralise disease agents – due to the animals they consume throughout the food chain.

As predators and scavengers eat other animals over time, they consume more and more disease agents or toxins like mercury, even if those diseases or toxins are rare among individual prey animals – a process called bioaccumulation. This makes predators an excellent source of high-level information about disease in an ecosystem.

Professor Meredith says that while using wildlife as sentinels does not provide a detailed picture of disease in an ecosystem, they can be a “canary in the coal mine” for diseases that can spread between animal species, including humans.

“It’s about obtaining information on presence-absence, rather than very specific detail,” she says.

“And the idea is that if you use sentinels, you might be able to pick up a problem before it occurs and still have time to do something about it.

“We know that several emerging human epidemics were actually identified first in animals, but no one did anything about it, for example Ebola – we knew about that in primates. Gorillas were dying, chimps were dying, and duikers, a forest antelope,” before it became a public health issue for humans.

She also said the effects of infectious disease outbreaks in wild animal populations can be an overlooked element of biodiversity loss, with around one-third of great apes dying of the disease since the 1990s.

The Buruli ulcer, caused by infections of Mycobacterium ulcerans bacteria, has gained attention in Australia as a ‘flesh eating bug’ among humans, but also impacts possum populations.

Professor Anna Meredith’s research seminar followed the launch of the Faculty’s One Health PhD Program with the Peter Doherty Institute and School of Biosciences.
Professor Anna Meredith’s research seminar followed the launch of the Faculty’s One Health PhD Program with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the School of BioSciences.

Disease surveillance using sentinels, like other parts of Professor Meredith’s research, fits within the One Health approach.

The One Health concept recognises that water, soil, plant, animal and human health are interdependent, and provides a framework for the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences’ research and mission. It is a collaborative approach to tackling challenges on the interface of human, animal plant and environmental health, at local, regional, national, and global scales.

Her seminar followed the official launch of the One Health PhD Program, which provides graduate researchers with opportunities to engage with the One Health guiding principles towards creating a healthy and sustainable world.

The Program is hosted by the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, in collaboration with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the School of BioSciences.

You can find out more about the One Health PhD Program on the University’s Study website, and read more about Professor Meredith’s research and clinical career in this profile.

Story and photos by Stuart Winthrope.