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International Collaborations Yield Opportunities & Challenges

Dr. Francisco Olea-Popelka pursues his work in veterinary epidemiology with a global perspective. This interest began 12 years ago while working as a veterinarian on a project concerning zoonotic diseases – specifically brucellosis and tuberculosis – in Chile, his native country. He conducted a research project to assess the risk of these two diseases to public health by consumption of “fresh cheeses” produced using unpasteurized goat milk in rural areas. Through this experience, Dr. Olea-Popelka saw the importance of connecting veterinary medicine with public health through the use of population-based research studies.

From Chile to Canada & Ireland

Microchipping a badger

Reading a microchip on
a badger in Ireland

Dr. Olea-Popelka’s role in the goat research study spurred him to travel north to the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada to pursue a graduate degree in veterinary epidemiology. The research projects for both his MS and PhD training (funded by the Irish Government) were related to the identification of factors relevant to the control of bovine and badger tuberculosis in Ireland. Although these projects did not have an original public health focus but rather concerned the interaction of wildlife and livestock, the complexities and challenges inherent in population-based research with aims of understanding disease transmission and working toward controlling a disease in two species proved fascinating. The results of these applied research projects were used by the Irish government to enact policy addressing disease control in both cattle and badgers. The impacts of science-informed policy in action were apparent to Dr. Olea-Popelka.

Applied Population-based Research

Dr. Olea-Popelka in South Africa

Dr. Olea-Popelka with an immobilized elephant in South Africa
as part of a wildlife health status monitoring program

The Animal Population Health Institute (APHI) has had an international research and outreach component for many years that fits nicely with Dr. Olea-Popelka’s training and interests. Since coming to APHI in December 2007, Dr. Olea-Popelka has continued his research efforts in Ireland and expanded his international work to include joint projects with Kruger National Park in South Africa. Through the South African collaboration, tuberculosis and other health issues in a variety of wildlife species (lions, rhinos, elephants, wild dogs, and hyenas) were studied.

Dr. Olea-Popelka has learned that each international veterinary research project presents a new set of challenges that must be considered in order to address the research question. These challenges include not only the disease within the species under study but also a country’s socio-economic conditions, culture and policies, among others. Because of these impacts, the same disease is unique in different countries. He finds it is exciting to face these different challenges because of the positive impacts veterinary research has on the local populations. Dr. Olea-Popelka is committed to continuing his work in different countries. In so doing, he is providing opportunities for Colorado State University students to gain new insights.

Introducing Students to International Challenges

PVM student working in Ireland

A Colorado State veterinary student exploring
a potential badger trail on an Irish farmer's property

Several Colorado State University Professional Veterinary Medicine (PVM) students have been introduced to international population-based veterinary research under Dr. Olea-Popelka’s guidance and provision of appropriate data sets. One PVM student participated on a project evaluating the efficiency of slaughter surveillance in Ireland while four others evaluated temperature measuring devices for use in rhinos in Namibia and anesthesia protocols for rhinos, wild dogs and hyenas in South Africa. Also, a 3rd year student enrolled in the combined DVM/MPH program worked with Dr. Olea-Popelka on a project related to animal movements and the risk of bovine tuberculosis in Ireland. She travelled to Ireland and presented her work to Irish governmental veterinary officials (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) as well as participating on a field outbreak investigation in Ireland. A 2nd year CSU PVM student will travel to Kruger National Park (South Africa) during 2011 to work with field veterinarians to collect data as part of ongoing research projects.

Dr. Olea-Popelka’s international collaborations extend to students outside of Colorado State University (CSU). He hosted a veterinary student from Universidad de Chile during two months at APHI/CSU to complete a summer practicum in 2009. Two other veterinary students, one from Universidad Mayor (Chile) and a second from the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (Norway) will conduct a practicum during 2011-2012 under the supervision of Dr. Olea-Popelka in epidemiological projects related to wildlife species. He is affiliated with the Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology and Risk Analysis at University College Dublin, where he is currently advising an Irish PhD student who is working with tuberculosis in badgers. Moreover, he is working with two graduate students from the University of Veracruz in Mexico (MS and a PhD) on projects concerning Toxoplasma in goats and Leptospirosis in cattle in a rural area in Mexico.

Future Challenges

Young lion with TB

Young South African lion with an elbow hygroma,
one of the earliest signs of localized tuberculosis in lions

Collaborating with international institutions on applied research projects that have a direct impact on health of domestic, wildlife and humans is of paramount importance to Dr. Olea-Popelka. During October of 2010, he visited the EpiCentre at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH) in Oslo in order to interact with veterinary epidemiologists in Norway and explore areas of mutual interest regarding tuberculosis. The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science has a well-respected program through which African DVM and graduate students from different countries are brought to Norway for doctoral training. These African students complete their coursework in Norway and focus their research projects on diseases of importance in their countries, including among others different mycobacteria (Mycobacterium bovis, Mycobacterium africanun and non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM)) infection in wildlife, humans, livestock and the environment. These projects are now directed more towards control of zoonotic diseases, also integrating animal health economy into the projects. This opens for a closer collaboration between CSU and NVH, with a deeper integration of research work.

Dr. Olea-Popelka is currently (February 2011) working towards implementing a multinational project, integrating colleagues and institutions with expertise on different aspects of mycobacterial infections, in different animal species. The focus of Dr. Olea-Popelka efforts are to assess the importance of Mycobacterium bovis (and other mycobacterial) infection in different mammals species, and hence, based on scientific evidence be able to guide policy and action towards the prevention and control of tuberculosis caused by different mycobacteria in livestock, wildlife and humans.