The Not-So Secret Mission of the Smithsonian National Zoo

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Have you been to the zoo? Have you been amazed by the many animals inside? Well, there’s a lot more to the Smithsonian National Zoo than just the animals. There are scientists studying every day how to help save humans and animals as part of their Global Health Program. An important part of their research focuses on zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are diseases spread from animals to humans. Six out of ten diseases caught by humans are spread by animals. Many lives, both human and animal, are saved everyday with their research. Many familiar diseases come from animals.

A main distributor of zoonotic diseases is the mosquito. Some diseases they spread to humans include: malaria, chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. Over a million people die from these mosquito borne diseases every year. One small bite from a mosquito could mean lots of suffering.

Another animal which transmits many diseases to humans are rats. One of the diseases spread by rats is the plague. There are many variations of this disease, but one of the most famous is the great plague that killed about 60 percent of the European population. This event along with many others showed how much of a large and dangerous impact zoonotic diseases can have on humans.

You may not realize this, but monkeys transmit a lot of diseases to humans. Humans have a better chance of getting diseases from monkeys because monkeys and humans are related species. Some of the zoonotic diseases spread by monkeys are herpes, colds, measles, polio, rabies, tetanus, and tuberculosis. Most of these diseases are common in humans today.

Ticks are another known distributor of disease. Lyme disease, babesosis, enrilichiosis, rocky mountain spotted fever, relapsing fever, tularemia, anaplasmosis, Colorado tick fever, Powassan encephalitis are all tick borne illnesses. In 2010, there were 22,500 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in the world.

The Smithsonian Global Health Program has a special focus on combating emerging zoonotic diseases because they can be so dangerous. Animals may not even appear sick when they are carrying a zoonotic disease, but that same disease could be deadly to humans when they encounter that disease for the first time. As human populations grow, and habitats are destroyed, people come into contact with more and more animal species. That is why there are more emerging zoonotic diseases today. The Zika virus, spread by mosquitos, is just one of the most recent emerging zoonotic diseases in the news.

The Smithsonian Global Health Program has a team of wildlife veterinarians, pathologists, physicians, and researchers that focus on identifying and containing these diseases. If they can identify zoonotic diseases before they cross over to humans, they have a better chance of stopping its spread. All of these specialists working together can protect us here at home from outbreaks around the world. Smithsonian specialists are also training scientists in other countries to do the same thing. People can all learn more about this important work when the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. opens a new exhibit on these issues next year called “Outbreak!”

The U.S. Center for Disease Control has some very useful information on how we can protect ourselves and our families from zoonotic diseases right now. The most important things to do are: to keep your hands clean, especially after being around animals; prevent bites from mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas; avoid bites and scratches from animals; handle food safely; and be aware of zoonotic diseases when you travel.

At first people may be surprised that the Smithsonian and the National Zoo are so involved in protecting human health. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that you need veterinarians to stop wildlife diseases from spreading to humans.The Smithsonian Global Health Program began just two years ago, but their research is saving lives, both human and animal every day. So, the next time you go to the National Zoo, you may look at it in a whole new light.