Looking Ahead to the ‘New Normal’ with a Local Expert in the Expanding Field of One Health
As far back as elementary school, Dr. Kelly Lane-deGraaf was fascinated by things that might make the rest of us squirm. Like filarial worms, a microscopic, thread-like worm that causes a tropical disease called lymphatic filariasis.
“The idea that something so small could have such a significant impact was mind-boggling to me,” says Lane-deGraaf, now a biological and physical sciences professor at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. She never lost her early sense of wonder—in this case, that a parasitic worm carried by a mosquito could lodge itself in the lymph tissue and cause extreme swelling in the arms and legs. “I have come back to the relationship between host and pathogen in all of my studies.”
Dr. Kelly Lane-deGraaf
Fast forward to 2020, and a new tiny organism that originated in animals is causing havoc in human bodies around the world. This time the zoonotic disease is a coronavirus that most likely emerged from a bat and spread to humans in China.
“It is not at all unique in that way,” Lane-deGraaf says. Zoonotic diseases are very common—3 our of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What made COVID-19 unique was its potential to become a pandemic. But even that was not entirely a surprise. “If you chat with anyone in the infectious disease community, everybody saw this coming,” Lane-deGraaf says. “This is a One Health moment.”
Understanding the field of One Health
“The idea of One Health is a holistic approach for thinking about health questions,” Lane-deGraaf explains. “It’s the idea that human health, animal health and environmental health are really just different facets of the same issue. The things that affect us also affect our environment and the animals in that environment, and we can’t separate those things.”
If you’ve never heard of One Health, you’re not alone. Lane-deGraaf herself hadn’t heard the term until after she finished her Ph.D. in disease ecology in 2011. It has gone by other names in the past, including conservation medicine.
Fontbonne’s One Health program—developed in partnership with the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine—is one of the first undergraduate programs of its kind in the country. The field is so new that there wasn’t even a textbook for it until Lane-deGraaf and her colleagues wrote one. “An Introduction to One Health: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Planetary Health” was published in January 2019. The co-authors are Sharon Deem, who directs the Saint Louis Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine and teaches in the University of Missouri’s Veterinary College, and Elizabeth Rayhel, a professor and member of the Center for One Health at Fontbonne.
“St. Louis has become a little bit of a One Health nexus,” Lane-deGraaf says, listing organizations ranging from the Washington University School of Medicine to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. “Almost by accident, people who are thinking about these questions have ended up in St. Louis and started working together.”
According to the CDC, One Health includes the study of zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance, food safety and security, vector-borne diseases, environmental health, chronic diseases, mental health, occupational health and more.
“The theme of our whole book—and the theme of One Health in many ways—is connecting our actions to the unintended consequences of what our actions do,” Lane-deGraaf says. “We have changed our environments to be completely different than they were, and there are consequences of that.”
Taking action as individuals
Lane-deGraaf is straightforward when talking about the COVID-19 outlook. “It is unlikely that we will be returning to just like things were one full year ago,” she says. “Our world has changed. Our country has changed. And it would be great if in this moment we approached what will be the new normal with some forethought and made changes with the opportunity. Take this terrible thing and find opportunities to prevent this from happening again—or at least reduce the damage.”
Although it’s tempting to see the problem as overwhelmingly large, Lane-deGraaf says there are actually many ways we can contribute to solutions. “We can make decisions about where we get our food, for example,” she offers.
Scientists are still studying whether COVID-19 emerged in a Chinese wet market—a place where live animals from many species are brought together and sold to consumers. Although U.S. food shoppers don’t go to wet markets, Lane-deGraaf points out, “We still don’t know that our food is butchered in a safer way. We don’t always treat livestock for food production in the best way. There’s definitely opportunity for infections to emerge from confined animal feeding operations.”
Another actionable area is talking about potential solutions for climate change. “We know climate change is occurring,” Lane-deGraaf says. “There are a lot of ideas of how best to resolve it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Small steps do add up.”
However, she cautions, “Not everyone can make the same changes. There are differences in equity and differences in access. Things we’re asking people to do at the top of the socioeconomic strata should be different than the things we’re asking people at the bottom to do.”
Another area that’s ripe for self-reflection is our shopping patterns. “Do what I pay for things reflect what the actual cost is? Making choices with that context in mind would be the best first step for many people.”
And, she continues, “Think about how you interact with your world. How many people do you come in contact with?”
Finally, for those who are looking for a more in-depth introduction to One Health, she says that the textbook she co-authored is a very accessible starting point. “It’s not a book the average person would pick up and leisurely read,” she says, “but it’s told in a storytelling way. We worked hard to make the information accessible because we believe that telling stories is a better way to learn.”
Celebrating her work
One of the many events cancelled due to the stay-at-home orders was an awards dinner on April 2 at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where Lane-deGraaf was to be honored with the Academy of Science-St. Louis 2020 Outstanding Science Educator Award. It recognizes significant contributions to science education or public understanding of science, engineering or technology.
“I was super excited,” Lane-deGraaf laughs. “Just the idea that I would get a trophy for doing science was so exciting.” As a researcher, she examines how institutional racism has shaped wildlife population dynamics in urban racoon populations. As a teacher, she mentors students in bench and field research experiences in disease ecology—and she helped develop Fontbonne’s senior capstone course in the sciences, which helps ensure that undergraduate students in biology have an opportunity to graduate as a co-author of a manuscript in review.
“Research really gets you thinking more about how you’re going to engage with the world,” she says. It encourages students—and the rest of us as well—to think about science as a toolbox instead of a list of facts to memorize.
That’s especially important now, when the facts about COVID-19 are still being sorted out.
“This is a very real, very serious infection, and it really is affecting the lives and livelihoods of people across the planet,” Lane-deGraaf says. “It almost feels like it would be remiss not to make changes.”
Featured image of scientists conducting field research courtesy of Kelly Lane-deGraaf.