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One Health in Madagascar

Human health cannot be separated from the health of the ecosystems on which we depend, or from the health of our neighbors—the wild animals that share these ecosystems.

A substantive body of literature suggests that intact, biodiverse natural ecosystems may offer disease-buffering services for surrounding human communities, presenting a win-win opportunity for both wildlife and human public health. But very few studies have evaluated the “One Health” interactions of landscapes, wildlife and human disease in any sort of experimental framework. Our 10-year study alongside Health In Harmony, rainforest communities, and other partners will do just that.

This past year, Zoo New England grew our roster of innovative international partnerships with a new effort in Madagascar, led by the non-governmental organization, Health In Harmony, to improve the conservation status of several species of lemurs and other rare wildlife in a special reserve in southeast Madagascar, while also investing in the health care, food security and economic opportunities designed by Malagasy community members who live around the forest.

Zoo New England veterinarians, conservation biologists and scientists are working with a transdisciplinary group of human health professionals, epidemiologists and wildlife disease ecologists, employing a One Health approach to work toward a thriving future for Madagascar’s people, lemurs and their shared ecosystem.

Breaking the Cycle

As a consequence of economic hardship and poor healthcare access resulting from histories of colonialism and extraction, communities in the Manombo region of Madagascar have been forced to heavily depend on natural resources for timber, charcoal production, hunting, and swidden. The challenges these communities face—extreme poverty and forest loss—exacerbate one another in a negative feedback loop. Degraded forests have been shown to increase the risk of infectious disease transmission, while insufficient access to healthcare and food often leaves communities with no option but to further degrade the forest.

To break this cycle of degradation and protect vital wildlife habitat, Health In Harmony aims to provide for both the social and environmental needs of the region using a One Health community-designed approach that examines the benefits of integrated conservation and human health programs.

The One Health Connection

The One Health field was first named in 2004, and it has since been recognized as a top priority for health research and implementation by the World Health Organization. A One Health approach recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that One Health collaborations are essential for the prevention of global health crises, and for the flourishing of both humans and wildlife.

This research project will study the effects of community-designed One Health programs aimed at addressing the region’s challenges with high-quality healthcare access, climate-resilient farming techniques, school support, reforestation, and emergency cyclone response. Throughout the project, Health In Harmony will work with Manombo Rainforest communities to strengthen the healthcare system through mobile clinics and maternal/infant health programs. 

As these improvements are made, teams of skilled technicians, funded by Zoo New England, will conduct thorough biodiversity assessments of Manombo Rainforest. These semi-annual field missions will document species richness and population abundance of mammals (lemurs, rodents, tenrecs, carnivores, bats), amphibians, reptiles, birds and plants. The team will take biological samples and measurements from some of these species, and veterinarians, including Zoo New England’s Senior Veterinarian, Dr. Chris Bonar, will conduct wildlife veterinary health exams.

Coinciding with these biodiversity and wildlife health assessments, Health In Harmony will undertake routine human health surveys around Manombo Rainforest to monitor the long-term impacts of improved forest habitat on human welfare.

The project aims to continue the surveillance of biodiversity, wildlife and human health in Manombo Rainforest over many years of community-designed interventions supported by Health In Harmony, offering an unprecedented opportunity to study the interconnectedness of biodiversity, animal health and human well-being.

Images courtesy of Health In Harmony