This past summer I was fortunate enough to be granted funding from the UC Davis International Scholarship, the UC Davis STAR program, and Morris Animal Foundation in order to carry out a project I had designed that would focus on wildlife, livestock, and human health. Working with Dr. Cheryl Scott, director of the UC Davis One Health Program, and Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder and CEO of the Ugandan-based organization Conservation Through Public Health, I was able to travel to southwestern Uganda for 5 weeks in order to assess disease transfer between mountain gorillas, livestock, and humans sharing habitat along the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. My study looked particularly at Giardia spp and Cryptosporidium spp infections in all three groups, and by working with local farmers, hospitals, and community workers we were able to better understand the transfer of these two dysentery-causing pathogens in this delicate ecosystem.
Despite the main goal being the research project, I was able to participate in many other veterinary and cultural projects while camping along the edge of the forest. During sampling trips into community herds for my project, I was able to provide health checks for over 150 livestock, which are a central part to the pastoral lifestyle that exists in this area of Africa. I was also able to provide education on zoonotic disease, basic hygiene, and sanitation in terms of livestock care and water/resource control. During my stay I met many other researchers, journalists, human health care specialists, and local experts, all of whom educated me on the complex interplay between cultural values, economic interests, ecological concerns, the impact of tourism, and the role I will play as a veterinarian in all of these areas. Understanding that there are multiple facets and no clear right answer to what seems like a simple problem, such as the lack of clean drinking water or the transfer of disease from poor hygiene, was an eye opening experience for me, both in terms of my development as a veterinarian and as a person.
The results of my STAR project reflected these new experiences, and echoed the need for collaboration between ecological, human, and animal health professionals. All of our gorilla positives for Giardia spp and Cryptosporidium spp were found in infants who were in groups that had recently ranged outside the forest borders and onto grazing land that contained herds that also had positives. In our human samples, it seemed Giardia spp was a key player in the reported symptomatic cases, and many of these peoples' daily routines bring them into contact with gorillas and livestock. The location of these positives and the lack of a border zone, as well as the strong likelihood of water and food contamination, indicate that disease transfer between these three groups is occurring, and that in order to treat one group, we must treat them all.
Overall, my time spent in Uganda was nothing less than life-changing. I was able to learn more about myself, about doing research in the field, about working with local people in order to accomplish a larger goal, and about the complex aspects that are involved in saving a rare, endangered species like the mountain gorilla.