Wildlife Health Surveillance in Laos Demonstrates One Health in Action
By Emily Denstedt | March 10, 2023
For those of us working in conservation, public health, or veterinary medicine, you may have heard or used the term “One Health.” And if you haven’t yet, you will soon.
The World Health Organization’s One Health High-Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP) has defined One Health as “an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems.” Key to the One Health approach is a recognition that the health of people, livestock, wildlife, and the broader environment are all interconnected.
But what does One Health look like in practice? From a structural policy standpoint, how do we get there? And perhaps most important as we prepare to enter a fourth year of the covid pandemic, how can we use a One Health approach to avoid future zoonotic spillovers and their devastating consequences?
“Beyond the obvious devastation to human life, the pandemic has affected livelihoods, economies, and wildlife.”
The impacts of COVID-19 continue to be far-reaching. Beyond the obvious devastation to human life, the pandemic has affected livelihoods, economies, and wildlife, and could be felt in the furthest corners and wildest places on earth.
Something the pandemic has brought forward, obvious to some but still a novel link to many, is the connection between the destruction of our natural world and pandemic potential. SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and many other viruses before it, was borne from its natural home in a wildlife reservoir as human beings shook it loose from the forests in Asia.
Several other infectious agents are sweeping through human, domestic animal, and wildlife populations leading to mass morbidity and mortality. This is due to direct or indirect compromise of what would normally be a natural disease transmission barrier — that is, an intact ecosystem with relatively undisturbed and diverse wildlife.
“Over recent years, those in the conservation communities have highlighted the gaps in wildlife health surveillance and the need for real, tangible demonstrations of One Health approaches.”
Over recent years, those in the conservation communities have highlighted the gaps in wildlife health surveillance and the need for real, tangible demonstrations of One Health approaches. To monitor and protect the health of wildlife, and to establish early warning systems for pathogens at an elevated risk of spilling over into new hosts, systemized wildlife health surveillance is now seen as critical.
Operationalizing something like a wildlife health surveillance system on a large scale that is integrated across sectors of human, animal, and environmental health is no small feat. But sometimes the most challenging part is to simply start.
In Laos, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Wildlife Health Surveillance has now been successfully adopted into national policy — the first of its kind in the country and one of few in existence across the world.
In a process that began over four years ago as part of the LACANET (EU-funded) and WildHealthNet (US Defense Threat Reduction Agency-funded) initiatives led by WCS and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Laos, the SOP was formalized at the ministerial level in 2022 thanks to the perseverance of governmental and non-governmental agencies from an array of sectors. A National Wildlife Health Surveillance Committee was created in accompaniment of this SOP to establish central-level governance.
Veterinary experts, forestry and protected area management, wildlife rescue centers, laboratory staff, law enforcement, and public health professionals all had an active voice in its co-construction in a true One Health approach.
“In Laos, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Wildlife Health Surveillance has now been successfully adopted into national policy — the first of its kind in the country and one of few in existence across the world.”
Its development involved several moving parts in parallel, including trips out to protected areas throughout Laos to speak with communities, agriculture officers in rural areas, and forest rangers; meetings with health-focused, animal-focused, and environmental-focused stakeholders together in one room; trying different approaches, making adjustments, then trying again; reviewing which policy mechanisms were already in place, primarily in the livestock health sector, and adapting wildlife health protocols to these frameworks.
Eventually, a product emerged that is both realistic and practical for the local context, and which is also based on frameworks developed by international bodies. Now, Laos has defined the mandate for wildlife health surveillance across their country and can provide guidance based on their SOP during wildlife morbidity and mortality events no matter where they take place. Public health, livestock health, and environmental sectors all have a role, and this is One Health in action.
Laos is now one of the few nations delivering in the policy arena in response to global calls for national wildlife health surveillance systems. We should encourage others to do the same, using strong bottom-up approaches, to shift the dial towards mitigating health threats at the source.
“Laos is now one of the few nations delivering in the policy arena in response to global calls for national wildlife health surveillance systems.”
Other governments developing new strategies need to listen to those on the ground; to those with eyes and ears on the forest, wetlands, and the sea; and to those who bring the most intimate knowledge of how their system does or does not work. They will likewise need to adapt to frameworks already established and functioning so as to not entirely re-invent the wheel.
In so doing, when two thousand wild birds are detected dead in a wetland, or multiple dead wild boar are found adjacent to a small-holder farm, there is guidance and a plan in place for what to do, who to report to, and how to investigate these events efficiently and safely. The fate of many living beings — including us — depends on it.
Emily Denstedt is the Regional Technical Advisor for Wildlife Health in the Greater Mekong and South Asia Regional Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).