Preventing animal-to-human pandemics in Sri Lanka

March 05, 2013
Stephen Dale
More than 200 global health researchers gathered in Ottawa to discuss research results from the 7-year Teasdale-Corti Global Health Research Partnership. Canadian and Sri Lankan specialists reported on the connections between animal and human health, and the impact on public health.  
Research into the ways human activities can either promote or contain diseases from animals shows that “people now believe that human public health depends upon having healthy, resilient animals,” says University of Calgary veterinarian Craig Stephen.
Although he’s convinced that all countries need to take that lesson on-board, Stephen was specifically talking about Sri Lanka. That’s where a team of Canadian and Sri Lankan specialists has been working.  Hosted by Sri Lanka’s University of Peradeniya, the team is led by Stephen and his co-principal researcher Sam Daniel, the  former Additional Secretary with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Estate Infrastructure and Livestock Development. 
With funding from the Teasdale-Corti Global Health Research Partnership Program, the researchers have been studying how best to increase surveillance of disease in animals and promote agricultural practices to improve animal health.
The Teasdale-Corti partnership is funded through Canada’s Global Health Research Initiative, a partnership between IDRC, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Major breakthrough
The work has led to a major breakthrough. Recently, the Sri Lankan government approved the creation of a new veterinary public health program, a development Stephen describes as “a huge shift.” Fourteen new veterinary public health officers have been hired, and the new unit will coordinate communication between veterinarians, environment and agriculture officials, and the medical community.
Most importantly, the creation of the new program broadens the focus of government veterinarians beyond issues like breeding and agricultural productivity, and into areas such as antibiotic resistance and farm practices that can minimize disease. These have a direct impact on human health.
Another leap forward is the drafting of an agreement between government and university researchers for the creation of a Sri Lankan Wildlife Health Centre. Ironically, its generally enviable position of having greater biodiversity than most developing countries also puts Sri Lanka at greater risk that disease will spread from wild animals. The new centre is intended to monitor those animals’ health.
Potential for pandemics
Do these advances mean that an animal-to-human pandemic is now less likely to begin in Sri Lanka?
Although he thinks it’s too early to make such a bold claim, Stephen is certain the country is in a much better position than four years ago.
“Without a doubt, Sri Lanka is better prepared, and will be able to respond more quickly if some new animal disease arises,” he says. “If there is a problem, they will discover it early on.”
Stephen also believes that having a veterinary public health program — as well as a new public sensitivity to animal health, partly due to his team’s research — will help shape the country’s future development.
The end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, he explains, brings new pressures to develop aquaculture and agriculture in the country’s northern and eastern regions, where the government had no presence before. There’s a danger that a “gold rush mentality” could lead to practices that threaten animal health and food safety. But this threat is offset, says Stephen, by the likelihood that farmers will receive information to help ensure that “new enterprises will expand in a healthy, sustainable fashion.” 
Stephen sees recent gains as a direct result of his research team’s structure and approach.  For example, the fact that the Sri Lankan co-principal investigator, Sam Daniel, held a high-level government position meant that “we looked at subjects and issues that he knew to be relevant” to the creation of public policy, says Stephen.
Promoting international lessons
Additionally, a focus on using the project to train Canadian and Sri Lankan veterinary students has led to “a diffusion effect.” Graduates have gone on to work for governments and multilateral agencies, bringing lessons from Sri Lanka to other countries such as China and Nepal.
Canadians can also learn from the Sri Lankan experience, says Stephen. For instance, Canada’s plans to provide more coordinated responses to public health emergencies could benefit from the example of how Sri Lanka forged consensus between different ministries and levels of government.
Sri Lanka’s growing commitment to monitor wildlife health also underscores “the broader concept that we need to pay attention to animals in the world around us to sustain our well-being,” says Stephen. In Canada, this means not only observing the spread of diseases like rabies and West Nile, but also detecting the effects of climate change.
“We are directly linked to animals because we eat them,” he says, “and indirectly linked because they tell us what’s going on around us. Looking at the animals is the first part of understanding that if you don’t have a healthy supporting environment all our other efforts are for naught.”
Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer.

Learn more about the Global Health Research Initiative

Read more about this project: Building the components of a veterinary public health system in Sri Lanka