UW's veterinary medical school adopts wildlife health project

February 13, 2013

Outbreaks of disease in wildlife may seem remote and, for most humans, inconsequential.

But disease events that arise in wild animal populations can be far-reaching and can even pose a threat to humans and domestic animals far removed from the source of animal affliction. New strains of flu, for example, often arise in birds and are first detected in surveys of waterfowl long before they begin to infect domestic animals and humans.

But because technical challenges and political barriers often interfere with effective communication about wildlife disease events, the Wildlife Data Integration Network (WDIN) project was created in 2002 by a collaboration including the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Biological Information Infrastructure.

The mission of the project, according to WDIN content manager Cris Marsh, was to provide timely, integrated information through a suite of products to better understand wildlife disease ecology, and to aid decision making and responses to outbreaks of disease in wildlife.

The WDIN resource
is intended to help
support coordinated
disease prevention
and control and sound
decision making to help
protect wildlife as well
as domestic animals
and human health.

In August of 2012, to further its efforts, the project moved to UW-Madison's School of Veterinary Medicine, where it is led by Kurt Sladky, who directs the school's zoological medicine program and the Special Species Health Service.

"Data and information about new and ongoing wildlife health events, as well as news articles, research updates and other items of interest to the wildlife health community, are aggregated, standardized and made available to anyone," notes Marsh, who explains that users include resource managers, public health officials, domestic animal veterinarians, wildlife disease specialists and the public. "The primary purpose is to provide situational awareness for those who are interested in learning where wildlife disease occurs."

The project has become the go-to source for broad sets of information and interactive tools relevant to wildlife disease. The project's services include:

The big-picture goal of the WDIN project, explains Marsh, is to gather and organize disparate sets of data and information, and make it easily accessible in the interest of improving communication about wildlife disease. The WDIN resource, Marsh adds, is intended to help support coordinated disease prevention and control and sound decision making to help protect wildlife as well as domestic animals and human health.

The project, Marsh notes, will be a helpful adjunct to UW-Madison's Global Health Institute. Data and information from WDIN can be "easily integrated with human and domestic animal health information."

Moreover, because the WDIN resource is used by researchers and others worldwide, a variety of School of Veterinary Medicine research programs can benefit. For example, the school's Comparative Ocular Pathology Laboratory of Wisconsin recently took advantage of the WDIN forum, which has nearly 3,000 subscribers, to raise awareness of its need for wildlife eye specimens for retrospective research and to support a project aimed at understanding the evolution of the eye.

The idea, according to Marsh, is to provide products and services that are useful not only to government agencies, veterinarians and wildlife managers, but also to researchers and others concerned about disease in wildlife.