News Releases, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logo College of Veterinary Medicine

News from the
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Illinois
3225 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, IL 61802
June 20, 2012

Release on
Contact: Chris Beuoy

Zoo Veterinarians Prepare for Disease Outbreaks

By Marisa Gwidt

Of the 150 million people who visit U.S. zoos and aquariums each year, it's safe to say none of them wants to go home with--or pass along--the flu.

That's why Dr. Yvette Johnson-Walker, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, recently facilitated "Flu at the Zoo," a daylong preparedness and communication exercise related to potential outbreaks of contagious diseases and epidemics such as highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N1). The USDA and the University funded the exercise, which took place in Bloomington, Ill., as part of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program.

"Human health and animal health are very interrelated," said Dr. Johnson-Walker, explaining how most animal experts care not only about the well-being of their captive or agricultural animals but also about the people who come in contact with these animals.

"Take the West Nile virus, for example," she said. "Birds were dying and people were dying, but no one was putting it all together."

A Bronx Zoo veterinarian, Dr. Tracey McNamara, was a key figure in identifying the West Nile virus outbreak in 1999 because she made the connection between the deaths of zoo birds, wild crows and people.

Dr. Johnson-Walker, who hopes "Flu at the Zoo" will be refined and replicated elsewhere, said she believes a main strength of the exercise was the broad spectrum of participants involved. All 16 zoos in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums were represented. In total, 85 specialists from 10 states participated in the exercise.

"We want everyone to be at the table and to evaluate the plans," said Dr. Johnson-Walker, noting how participants included zookeepers, veterinarians, public health professionals and poultry producers. "Each zoo is very different, even though theres a blanket plan."

The situation manual that was distributed at the exercise was a compilation of scenarios accompanied by questions intended to spark discussion and strategic development. For example, following an imagined situation of an outbreak of highly pathogenic flu at a zoo, several questions are asked, including: "How is the disposal of potentially contaminated equipment and supplies being handled?"

There are no responses printed in the booklet. The idea is that the participants already know the answers to the questions; they just haven't had the time to think about and plan for them. The exercise planning team hopes that zoos in other regions will be also able to use the document as they conduct their own preparedness exercises.

"Every plan is going to be very specific to each institutions staff, visitors and animals," said Dr. Yvonne Nadler, another facilitator for the exercise and a veterinary epidemiologist at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. "We thought there was a need to sit down and talk with all potential parties involved. If something should happen--if there is an outbreak of influenza--this will lead to a smoother response."

Dr. Nadler said if participants got two or three good ideas from the exercise to take home and apply to their own plans, the whole thing was worth it.

One thing Susan Wahlgren, the director of Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, Ill., took away from the activity is the idea that the media plays a central role in the way outbreaks and epidemics are perceived. She agreed with Dr. Nadler that some people are afraid of zoos because media headlines often focus on the rare or negative.

Dr. Nadler explained that "Flu at the Zoo" made her understand the importance of crafting positive messages she can fully back, adding, "If you bring your family to the zoo for the day, you're not going to get sick."