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Wildlife trade: A potential public health threat

Photo: Michelle Tribe via Flickr

Many diseases and infections come to humans from wildlife. So what are we doing to try to prevent the spread? Which animals should we be wary of…and why?

Defining the risk of the international wildlife trade is challenging, but the stakes for controlling the trade and mitigating its dangers will be critical to protecting humans from emerging disease.

Many organizations and some federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have expressed concern that pathogens entering the country through the wildlife trade could potentially make the jump to humans, morphing into something more troublesome.

To help provide more information around the issue, a team of researchers including the University of Minnesota’s Irene Bueno Padilla is working to build a risk-analysis framework that can help national agencies like the CDC identify which aspects of the international wildlife trade pose a threat to American human or animal health.

Irene Bueno Padilla

Irene Bueno Padilla is working to complete her Masters of Public Health degree at The Raptor Center.

The framework could potentially help prevent future public health threats like the 2003 monkeypox outbreak, which affected 53 people in the Midwest, and began with a pathogen jumping from Gambian giant rats to prairie dogs to humans.

“There hasn’t been a risk analysis done for this before, so we had to start from scratch,” said Bueno, who is working to complete her Masters of Public Health degree at The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota. “So many diseases can come through wildlife and affect humans.”

To kick-off the first stages of the project, Bueno recently traveled to New York for five-weeks on a scholarship to investigate the underpinnings of a project created by Dominic Travis, D.V.M., associate professor of veterinary population medicine at the University of Minnesota, and Kristine Smith, D.V.M., associate director of health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance.

Bueno worked with fellow researchers to examine the public health risk of rodents legally imported to the United States (data doesn’t exist for animals imported illegally).

But she didn’t just examine imported rats, mice and other common rodents – she looked at the entire class known as “rodentia” within the mammal family, including beavers, muskrats, porcupines, chinchillas, prairie dogs and more.

Focusing on animals and pathogens transported from Latin America to the U.S., Bueno began to document the different species imported and the type of pathogens they carried, attempting to establish the risk posed by the combinations.

“There’s a big range in how likely it is that an imported pathogen will result in harm,” said Bueno.

Sometimes an imported animal becomes a pet that is handled by children and sometimes an imported animal is handled by researchers or consumed. The exposure varies greatly.

“For now, we’re just in the initial, exploratory stages of research, and we still have a lot of work to do,” said Bueno. “A lot happens between the time and animal leaves the country and the time it reaches its final destination.”

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