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National Zoo Vet On Front Line Of Fight Against Pandemics

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Dr. Suzan Murray is chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
WAMU
Dr. Suzan Murray is chief veterinarian at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Visitors to the National Zoo see animals from around the world, but behind the scenes, zoo veterinarians are dealing with diseases from around the world. Scientists say 75 percent of human diseases mutated from "zoonotic" or animal counterparts, meaning zoo veterinarians are playing an increasingly important role on the front lines of pandemic prevention. Jonathan Wilson talked to Dr. Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian about her work training scientists across the globe and identifying the deadly diseases that stem from human contact with wildlife.

On traveling across the globe, researching pandemics and educating scientists in pandemic hotspots around the world:

"It's been wonderful, because it gives us an opportunity to share what we know about our animals here... but there's also a much broader issue, which is the next emerging pandemic threat. And the last two decades we've seen a lot more of things that affect humans, also - animals and humans on a much broader scale. About 70 percent of the emerging infectious diseases that affect humans (swine flu, ebola, monkey pox) are zoonotic in nature, meaning it comes from the animal population. What we've discovered over the last two decades is that there hasn't been enough information, enough background surveillance about what's going on in the animal population. And if we really want to stop the next emerging pandemic threat before it hits and kills a lot of people, we need to have some more information."

On tracking down the source of a pandemic:

"We work very closely with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). We'll look at animals in the, and look at some of our programs and look at, 'Were there 20 dead bats? Were there 10 dead monkeys? Have we already anesthetized animals and collected those samples or should we go about collecting those samples now?'"

On whether the pandemic threat is greater in today's global society:

"It's a little bit of both, right? Because of the increased anthropogenic changes, and the increased interaction between people and animals, and our global economy, whereby people can get on an airplane in Hong Kong, and then get to London and D.C. within 24 hours — the factors that make it ripe for virus mutation and translation into other species are really very high... But fortunately, because of forward thinking, and avocation by programs like this USAID program, the surveillance has really steeped up a lot, and we've managed to identify over 200 new viruses. That's actually really huge... So the answer to your question is 'Yes and yes.' We're at much greater risk, but we're also much better prepared."


[Music: "Life is Beautiful" by A Reminiscent Drive from Mercy Street]

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