I recently completed a post-graduate certificate in conservation medicine through the University of Edinburgh Veterinary School, but what is conservation medicine and why is it important?

An emerging discipline borne out of the collaboration of health sciences with ecological and environmental studies, conservation medicine is concerned with the health of people, animals and ecosystems and recognises the interrelated nature of these.

Although the principles of conservation go back thousands of years, as humans acknowledged a need to conserve the natural resources which they relied on for future use; in modern times it is a recently emerging field. Conservation medicine evolved from conservation biology, which as a term and a discipline only came into use in the 1970s.

It is important to maintain the biodiversity of the planet. This is a vital and immediate concern both for mitigating the damages caused directly or indirectly by the human race but also because of the human benefits biodiversity provides. Biodiversity benefits are multifactorial and may be economic, agricultural or medicinal in nature, and in many cases may not have been elaborated yet. (TEEB, 2010)  The naturalist Aldo Leopold extorted us to “keep every cog and wheel” as losing any single ‘cog’ may have untold negative effects for the functioning of the system as a whole, indicating that every species has an important role in the ecosystem, even if we are currently unaware of its value. (via Callicott, 1990).

Human activities have caused fragmentation and habitat pollution, produced increased levels of environmental toxins and changes in climatic systems. Climate change is an ongoing source of much debate and study. It has been shown that new infectious diseases are emerging, and that altered disease transmission patterns are creating epidemics at levels not previously seen. These effects have been shown to be as a consequence of changes in environmental weather systems. (McMichael, 2012; Patz, 1996; Yacoub, 2011; World Health Organisation, 1996). Habitat destruction or fragmentation creates effects on disease transmission also; it may allow pathogens to be carried to new species or locations as natural ranges are reduced or augmented but may also provide a novel niche for pathogens. (Meffe, 1999) These issues taken with the booming human population, the increasing movement of people, animals and other biological materials around the globe has created a situation where humans and wildlife come into more frequent contact, and the potential for disease transmission is greatly increased. Knowledge of pathogens, disease dynamics and how they may be affected by the environmental situation is central to conservation medicine.

Conservation medicine has been described as a crisis discipline, due to the rapid decline in the health of ecosystems and increased rate of species extinctions which are evident in our time. Acting to preserve the natural world may have to be undertaken without full knowledge of all contributing factors.

The current global situation we find ourselves navigating, where the human population is rapidly increasing, new diseases are emerging, and many species are becoming critically endangered has highlighted a need for a coordinated problem solving effort. A knowledge and understanding of health and disease, as well as the inherently-linked ecosystem features and environmental issues are integral to helping maintain a diversity of life on earth. Conservation Medicine is responding to these complex problems by uniting medical training (human and veterinary), with science disciplines and other knowldedge including social, political and economic. The recent increase in species extinctions (Ceballos, 2015) is devastating and this loss of biodiversity is detrimental to humans. Indeed, our future success and survival hangs upon our ability to defend and care for our planet, and therefore why conservation medicine, is so important. (Osofsky, 2000)

The benefits to animals and humans of the field of conservation medicine means that knowledge, understanding and experience of disease and its transmission, can be utilised to reduce morbidity and mortality and mitigate associated detrimental financial and environmental consequences. I aim to be passionately involved in conservation medicine as it evolves, to be at the forefront of wildlife conservation and promote health for people, animals and the planet.

Further Reading

The current definition of Conservation Medicine can be found here:

Aguirre, A., Daszak, P. & Ostfeld, R. (Eds)  (2012). New directions in conservation medicine applied cases of ecological health. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 1 p. 6.

References

Callicot, J.Baird, (1990) ‘Whither Conservation Ethics?’ Conservation Biology 4: 15–20. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.1990.tb00261.x

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P., Barnosky, A., García, A., Pringle, R., & Palmer, T. (2015). ‘Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.’ Science Advances, 1(5), E1400253.

McMichael A. (2012) ‘Insights from past millennia into climatic impacts on human health and survival.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. ;109:4730–4737. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1120177109

Meffe, G. (1999). ‘Editorial: Conservation Medicine.’ Conservation Biology, 13(5), 953-954.

Osofsky, S. (2000). ‘Conservation Medicine: A Veterinary Perspective.’ Conservation Biology, 14(2), 336-337.

Patz, J., Epstein, P., Burke, T., & Balbus, J. (1996). ‘Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases.’ Journal of the American Medical Assosciation, 275(3), 217-223.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2010): The Ecological and Economic Foundations; Chapter 2: Biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services. Edited by Kumar. P., Earthscan, London and Washington. Available at http://img.teebweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/D0-Chapter-2-Biodiversity-ecosystems-and-ecosystem-services.pdf

Yacoub S., Kotit S., Yacoub M.H. ‘Disease appearance and evolution against a background of climate change and reduced resources.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. 2011;369:1719–1729. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0013.