For the first time, a virus that causes respiratory disease in humans has been linked to the deaths of wild mountain gorillas. This confirms that serious diseases can pass from people to these endangered animals. The study, which reports the 2009 deaths of two mountain gorilla that were infected with a human virus, was published online in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Press release available here; story picked up by Reuters, National Geographic.com and LA Times among others.
Field Blog: Follow the Gorilla Doctors
Humans and great apes are closely related evolutionarily, and as a result, share many of the same health concerns. The Wildlife Health Center and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) established a unique and precedent-setting initiative called the Gorilla Doctors. This program exemplifies the One Health approach to problem solving embraced by the United Nations, American Medical Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Wildlife Conservation Society, among others. Most importantly, this collaboration helps to ensure the long-term health and survival of the mountain gorilla, and the human and animal communities that share their habitat.
For nearly 20 years, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) has been helping the mountain gorillas survive by providing them with life-saving veterinary care for human-caused or life-threatening illness and injuries. The MGVP is the only source of veterinary care to mountain gorillas in the wild. Established in 1986 by the Morris Animal Foundation, under the directorship of Dr. Michael Cranfield, the MGVP has expanded over the last 10 years in the direction of One Health, recognizing that the sustainability of mountain gorillas is integrally linked, not only to the health of the gorilla population, but to the health of the other wildlife species, domestic animals and the humans with which it co-exists.
The reality of the gorillas' environment is that they live in close proximity to other animals, both wild and domesticated, as well as humans. Humans, as park workers and ecotourists, have and continue to bring foreign germs into the parks that threaten the gorillas. At the same time, the gorillas venture close to the surrounding populated areas where they come into close contact with domestic and companion animals and are thereby exposed to infectious diseases. As a One Health-oriented program, the MGVP strives to maintain and ensure the long-term health of mountain gorillas through veterinary intervention, health monitoring and research on gorillas, wildlife and domestic animals, as well as promote community (human) health and capacity-building in range countries in the area of veterinary science and wildlife conservation. The Gorilla Doctors Program will instigate and coordinate new research, and develop collaborations that take advantage of the tremendous resources for animal and human health and agricultural development available at the University of California. For example, critical questions to be answered include:
1) What human diseases are mountain gorillas exposed to, and how can we prevent transmission? Humans and mountain gorillas are close cousins: what affects us affects them.
2) Which preventive health care services should be provided to park workers and their families, to reduce the risk of gorillas contracting human diseases? Park workers have close contact with mountain gorillas and should be healthy
3) How can the health and well-being of the human communities surrounding the parks be elevated?
4) How can the health and well-being of other wildlife species and domestic livestock in the region be increased, so that both the animals and the humans that depend upon them can lead healthy and productive lives?
The partnership will also foster research and training of veterinarians and students from both the United States and African nations, and raise the visibility of the mountain gorilla One Health program, so that other universities and integrative health programs around the world can benefit from it as a model for One Health. UC Davis has a long history of involvement with the MGVP: Linda Lowenstine has been the project’s veterinary pathologist since its beginnings in the mid-1980s, and primatologists Alexander Harcourt and Kelly Stewart, faculty in the Department of Anthropology, conducted extensive research on gorilla behavior at the Karisoke Research Center with Dian Fossey.