Dr. Eddy will soon make the long journey home to Goma, DRC, but the Head Field Vet has certainly had an exciting three weeks in the United States as his travels brought him to Houston, Texas for the Gorilla Doctors board meeting and fundraiser gala at the Houston Zoo, and to Orlando, Florida for the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) 46th annual conference. Dr. Eddy was awarded the AAZV's International Conference Scholarship, which covered his travel expenses to and from Africa and conference registration fee.
A host of generous Gorilla Doctors supporters also made this trip possible, including Lisa Bidelspach, founder of Step One (a partner organization to Gorilla Doctors), who provided meals, transportation and graciously opened up her home for Dr. Eddy to stay while in Houston. Staff at the Houston Zoo hospital planned a week of great activities for Dr. Eddy and many of our board members spent time with the Head DRC Field Vet while in town. Joe Bielitski and Tammie Bettinger hosted him in Orlando, the veterinary team at Disney's Animal Kingdom included Dr. Eddy in their week's work and AAZV's Dr. Enrique Yarto served as Dr. Eddy's host at Disney's Coronado Springs Convention Center and Resort for the annual conference.
While in Houston, Dr. Eddy visited the Houston Zoo and zoo hospital, receiving some additional training from their veterinary team and participating in rounds for the zoo animals. He also visited the Harris County Veterinary Medical Foundation (HCVMF), a "nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to promoting public awareness of the medical and humane issues affecting the health and welfare of animals and public health". While at HCVMF, Dr. Eddy gave a presentation about the Gorilla Doctors and our programs in DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.
The following day, the DRC Field Vet participated in the Gorilla Doctors board meeting, where directors Drs. Mike Cranfield and Kirsten Gilardi convened with 14 board members to discuss the latest successes and challenges in the field. The day concluded with a large-scale fundraising dinner at the Houston Zoo, "Celebrating Gorillas in the Wild", which benefitted both Gorilla Doctors and the GRACE center for Grauer's gorillas in the DRC. "More than 500 people were there, including all of our board members .... it was my first time to attend such a big fundraising event" said Dr. Eddy.
On October 17th, Dr. Eddy flew to Orlando, Florida to attend the annual AAZV conference, where he gave a presentation on cardiovascular and hepatic disease in wild eastern gorillas. "This was my first time to present a scientific paper to such a large audience of international peers. I was most honored to be the only African wildlife veterinarian who presented at the conference."
Over 90 veterinarians and wildlife professionals gave talks at the conference, ranging from zoological medicine, to the One Health initiative to fundraising for wildlife health projects. "It was a great opportunity to meet new colleagues in the field of veterinary medicine, as well as visit with old friends and share field experiences with other veterinarians" said Dr. Eddy. "I met many people who have heard and read about my work through the Gorilla Doctors blog. They were very excited to meet me. My network of skilled and experienced veterinarians in wildlife medicine has really grown!"
Dr. Eddy also managed to squeeze in a visit to Patti Ragan's Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, FL, courtesy of the GRACE and Disney team, where he saw rescued orangutans, chimpanzees and various other primates!
"I give my special thanks to all of the wonderful people who made this trip possible for me" said Dr. Eddy. "It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before - the experience of a lifetime!" As Dr. Eddy makes his way home to his family in DRC, he has plenty of new friends and memories to reflect on and will surely be returning to his gorilla patients envigorated and with a renewed sense of purpose!
Every year, Gorilla Doctors supports graduate and PhD student research projects examining infectious diseases in eastern gorillas. This year, Gorilla Doctors has facilitated PhD research projects on respiratory illness in mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and herpesviruses in mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable and Volcanoes National Parks. Also this year, Gorilla Doctors hosted Murdoch University PhD candidate Dr. Alisa Kubala, who is conducting research on malaria in eastern gorillas in Rwanda and DRC. Dr. Kubala generously agreed to share insights and details about her research and experience working with the Gorilla Doctors in the field.
Dr. Kubala's PhD thesis, Health and Conservation of Eastern Gorillas: A One-Health Study of Blood-Borne Parasites and Retroviral Infections will look specifically at the prevalence of malaria, microfilaria and retroviruses in eastern gorillas, humans, and other primates in Virunga and Kahuzi Biega National Parks in DRC.
These three diseases are endemic in humans in eastern gorilla host countries, where they are leading causes of morbidity and mortality. Some evidence suggests that co-infection with all of these pathogens can lead to increased parasite/viral loads, faster disease progression, and increased disease transmission.
Dr. Kubala's research will give insight into whether eastern gorillas are infected with any of these pathogens, if they can acquire these pathogens from humans, and if these pathogens cause any clinical disease. Her work will also hopefully reveal which vector species (mosquitoes and flies) are responsible for transmission of malaria and microfilaria in and around eastern gorilla habitats.
The study is complex in that it requires the collection of blood and fecal samples from humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons and monkeys sharing habitat in Kahuzi-Biega and Virunga National Parks. Of course, it also requires the collection of the vectors that transmit malaria and microfilaria in these habitats.
"Some of my sample analysis occurs in the field, but the vast majority occurs in specialized laboratories in the United States. Obtaining so many samples from two national parks, storing and transporting them to international laboratories requires careful collaboration among the entire Gorilla Doctors team."
Gorilla Doctors Employee Health Manager, Jean Paul Lukusa, has helped facilitate the collection of human samples for Dr. Kubala's research and these samples come under strict confidentiality from the employees of both national parks and their families when they participate in the Employee Health Program. While conducting annual health exams and obtaining blood and fecal samples, Jean Paul also delivers a questionnaire to each employee to help Dr. Kubala determine risk factors for malaria, microfilaria and retroviral infection among humans in the two parks.
Blood and fecal samples from gorillas and other primates are not so easily to obtained, however. Only when an individual is anesthetized for a medical intervention in the field (or during routine health checks of the orphans at the sanctuaries) can samples be opportunistically collected, though fecal samples can sometimes be collected from the wild gorillas' night nests. "Fortunately, I've been able to accompany Gorilla Doctors DRC Field Vets Dr. Eddy Kambale and Dr. Martin Kubayaya, as well as Regional Manager Dr. Jan Ramer, on several field interventions and routine health checks of the Senkwekwe Center gorilla orphans and collected important samples for my study."
Chimpanzee, baboon and monkey interventions and health checks are carried out at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre (CRPL) by the Centre’s Veterinary and Technical Director, Carmen Vidal. Time and circumstances permitting, Dr. Kubala will go along to help with sample collection and organization.
After blood samples have been collected, many hours are spent at a field microscope, reviewing each sample for malaria and microfilaria:
Vector traps, an important component of the sample collection, requires the collaboration of national park workers and Gorilla Doctors veterinarians. Currently based at Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre, Dr. Kubala captures mosquito and fly vectors daily by hiking up to gorilla night nests or to chimpanzee, baboon or monkey enclosures and setting up light traps. Vector trapping in Virunga National Park is being completed by Dr. Martin and employees of both national parks (trackers, guards and administrators) take traps home with them every afternoon in order to capture vectors at many different locations around the parks overnight.
"When traps are taken down the next day, I spend several hours at a dissecting microscope in the field identifying each vector to species level" said Dr. Kubala. "While I am able to do the gross analysis of blood smears and vectors in the field, I do the molecular analysis of blood, feces and vectors at two specialized laboratories in the United States." To this end, all samples are sent through to Gorilla Doctors Regional Headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda, where Laboratory Technician Dr. Methode Bahizi organizes and stores them until it is time for them to be transported. Dr. Method also runs the hematologic analyses of gorilla blood samples in order to determine reference intervals for the species, while Bio Bank Manager, Jennifer Sohl, RVT, runs all of the biochemical analyses at the Gorilla Doctors Biobank at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
"A study of this size is certainly a team effort. Its successful completion will be a testament to the determination of Gorilla Doctors to support ambitious health research in order to provide the best possible medical care to the world’s remaining eastern gorillas. I’d like to thank the Institut Congolaise pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) for their gracious permission to conduct this study in their national parks."
Dr. Kubala will remain in Kahuzi-Biega National Park to collect samples throughout the rainy season until February 2015. She will return for dry season sampling from May to August 2015, and analyze her samples in the United States from November 2015 to February 2016.
Capacity building continues to be a primary objective of the Gorilla Doctors work and we are continually mentoring the next generation of wildlife health experts in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC. This year, Gorilla Doctors hosted a 6-month sabbatical for Roche Pharmaceuticals Veterinary Pathologist Dr. Tanja Zabka to teach wildlife pathology to staff, students and colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Dr. Zabka’s training involved multiple components: pathology training for field staff and identifying in-country post-mortem equipment supplies; central laboratory components, which included mentoring Ugandan pathologists and histotechnicians and partnering with JICA and Makerere University to enhance the histopathology laboratory functionality; research and education, which included input into the Wildlife Master's curriculum, input into the proposal to Senate of Makerere University to enable clinical tracks for diagnostic pathology, and providing essential teaching materials for pathology. In addition, a sustainability plan put in place includes building a North American Pathology Network among pathology institutions to provide training and mentoring opportunities.
With Dr. Zabka’s work, the foundation for a Wildlife Pathology Network has been laid, and even though her sabbatical has come to an end, she continues to help move this project forward with assistance from Gorilla Doctors Capacity Development Coordinator Dr. John Bosco Nizeyi and our partners at the Uganda Wildlife Authority and Makerere University.
We share the world's deep concern regarding West Africa's Ebolavirus outbreak and the devastating impact the virus is having on people, communities and nations. We are also concerned about the separate Ebolavirus outbreak occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Gorillas are highly susceptible to Ebolavirus; indeed, many thousands of western lowland gorillas have likely perished in past Ebolavirus outbreaks in central Africa.
Mountain and Grauer's gorillas are among the world's most endangered primates. With just 880 mountain gorillas and only a few thousand Grauer's gorillas left in the world, an outbreak of a disease such as Ebolavirus could have a devastating impact on the survival of the species.
If an Ebolavirus outbreak were to occur within or very close to the range of the mountain or Grauer's gorilla, from a conservation standpoint it would be important to consider all measures for assisting their survival. All options, including the potential for vaccination (if a vaccine were available), would need to be collectively discussed by governments and stakeholders.
All discussions about protecting mountain and Grauer's gorillas from Ebolavirus would of course consider the paramount importance of human health, and any decisions could not be at the expense of protecting the health of people living in the communities surrounding mountain gorilla parks.