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'One Health' expert Kathleen Alexander to discuss complex issues of disease on VoiceAmerica

February 17, 2016

Kathleen Alexander, a professor at Virginia Tech
Kathleen Alexander, left, works closely with local communities, investigating environmental, animal, and socioeconomic drivers of disease transmission in order to inform and strengthen public health approaches.

“One Health” is the concept that the complex problems facing our local and global communities can only really be addressed with a more holistic approach — one that encompasses societal, animal, and environmental components in an integrated manner.

Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, will discuss One Health and her work at Virginia Tech and in Botswana on the VoiceAmerica program Our Wild World on Monday, Feb. 22 at 11 a.m.

“It is no longer enough to evaluate the health status of an individual in isolation. We must engage the complexity of the system, such as land use and other changes that have occurred where the patient lives, interactions with animals and other humans, water and food, and household responses to disease,” said Alexander, a wildlife veterinarian and co-founder with Mark Vandewalle of the Center for African Resources: Animals, Communities and Land Use in Botswana.

“Our work in Botswana crosses scales and disciplines, from using molecular genetic tools at Virginia Tech to evaluate microbial population dynamics in the river flood plains, to the inclusion of how health-seeking behavior and health belief systems at the household level can influence disease reporting and treatment. An integrated approach is necessary to address the increasing number of global challenges that confront us,” she explained.

She conveys a sense of urgency in the VoiceAmerica interview. “We need to actively engage this complexity and make sense of it. We need to identify the coupling points that link humans, animals, and the environment, and how these interactions influence critical outcomes. Resiliency allows a system to continue to deliver services in the face of change — to a point. But the systems are changing and by the time we realize how, we might not be able to fix it.”

Alexander, who is an affiliate of Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute, and Vandewalle, an adjunct member of the wildlife conservation faculty at Virginia Tech, have been working with local communities integrating scientific approaches with traditional understanding in order to identify interventions. “Part of One Health is to reach out to stakeholders,” Alexander said.

On VoiceAmerica she talks about conveying her research to the government, doctors and nurses, community leaders, and households in Botswana and listening to them in return. “The chiefs remind me that my thinking is limited,” she said. “I want to bring that to my students — that the real part of being clever is listening. We need to identify and incorporate nonformal as well as formal sources of knowledge to address increasingly complex problems.”

Alexander’s National Science Foundation funded-work includes, for example, examining how processes that link the environment, wildlife, domestic animals, and humans in dryland river systems in southern Africa drive the accumulation and movement of waterborne disease across the landscape, developing integrated models that can be used to forecast waterborne disease epidemics, and investigating how restricted water access due to human activities can influence wildlife populations and in turn, how certain species, such as elephants, can impact water quality and, potentially, human health.