Zoos Network To Contain Disease

Online health records could keep outbreaks from spreading to humans

Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters

VETTED BY VETS

A new computer network might help keep bird flu and other diseases from spreading among animals in zoos and aquariums.

Keeping track of 100 head of cattle is a job for a cowboy; keeping track of 2 million elephants, emus, octopuses, orangutans, and other animals in the world’s more than 700 zoos and aquariums is a job for a coder. Zookeepers in 21 institutions have just begun testing the new Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a US $20 million real-time global network of zoo and aquarium medical files and animal husbandry records. One of the main goals of ZIMS is to monitor the spread of animal diseases that can potentially cross over to humans.

”ZIMS tracks the health and transport of zoo animals through the career of the animal,” says Tracee Treadwell, a veterinarian and public health expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta. ”We have been involved in the initial design of the system and see its potential to identify new and emerging diseases among these animals.”

Signs of human disease have shown up in zoo animals in the past. In August 1999, for example, veterinarians at the Bronx Zoo, in New York City, reported the deaths of some flamingos and pheasants. Later that month, two people were diagnosed with a strange neuro­logical illness at a community hospital in another part of the city. In addition, scores of crows were found dead within the metropolitan area. By 27 September, four human deaths and 37 illnesses had been reported due to what the CDC identified as West Nile virus, the first outbreak ever documented in the Western Hemisphere. It had taken more than a month after the first reported bird deaths for the CDC to make its diagnosis. If the initial flamingo and pheasant deaths at the zoo had been reported to an operational ZIMS network, the response would have been quicker, according to Jaime Meyer, a spokesman for the International Species Information System (ISIS), a nonprofit organization in Eagan, Minn. ISIS maintains computer-based information systems used by zoos and aquariums in 72 countries. ”An alert would be issued in a matter of minutes. And with a mouse click or two by zoo staff around the world, they could check to see if their zoo had any recent contact or whether an animal was transferred to or from the infected zoo,” Meyer says. The information could then be passed on to government health agencies.

Photo: John Warden/Getty Images

THE DEEP

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California, will use ZIMS.

Zoos routinely perform disease surveillance and diagnosis, but the process has not been automated. The only way for a zoo or aquarium to obtain information from another zoo has been for it to make a formal request through the mail, by phone, or by e-mail.

ZIMS is designed to replace two DOS-based programs that ISIS has used for the last 20 years: the Animal Records Keeping System (ARKS) and the Medical Animal Records Keeping System (MedARKS), Bronx Zoo veterinarian Paul Calle says. ARKS is used for recording where animals are and where they are transferred. Veterinarians use MedARKS to maintain medical records. ZIMS is 10 times as sophisticated as the two outdated software programs, says Calle. Neither ARKS nor MedARKS contains any mechanism to disseminate ­information widely. Disease outbreaks in other countries might not be known for days or weeks, he says. Calle is developing some of the clinical computer screens ZIMS users will access to retrieve laboratory results, disease serology, prescriptions, and information on procedures such as anesthesia.

Eighty staff members at 21 zoos and aquariums around the globe have begun testing the software in real-world situations. So far, 143 institutions have contributed to the development of ZIMS, and by fall 2008, ZIMS is expected to begin rolling out to ISIS member institutions at a rate of 20 per month. That’s assuming ISIS comes up with the money. ”We have essentially found the funding to create the application, but we still must find the money—about $3 million—to deploy it worldwide and to provide the higher level of technical support that ZIMS will require,” Meyer says.

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