There have long been reports of animals succumbing to environmental hazards before humans show signs of illness, according to the project's leader, Peter Rabinowitz, M.D., associate professor of medicine in The Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program at Yale University School of Medicine.
"This concept of a 'canary in a coal mine' suggests that animals may be useful sentinels for human environmental health hazards," said Rabinowitz. He points to the practice in the United States and Britain where coal miners would bring canaries into coal mines as an early warning signal for carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases. The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators.
Rabinowitz said several episodes of illness in animals have been clearly linked to human health threats, including cats and mercury poisoning, and more recently wild bird mortality and West Nile Virus infection.
Rabinowitz said non-human animals could be more sensitive to many of the agents that are potential biological or chemical weapons and could therefore serve as "sentinels" for a terrorist attack. At the same time, the public health system has been slow to use animal sentinel data to detect and reduce human environmental health hazards. Rabinowitz said there is a lack of ongoing scientific communication between animal health and human health professionals about emerging disease threats. This has made it difficult to assemble the evidence about linkages between animal diseases and human health.
To address this need, Rabinowitz and his team developed The Canary Database of Animals as Sentinels of Human Environmental Health Hazards, a web-based collection of animal sentinel studies that have been collected and curated in terms of their relevance to human health. The project represents a collaborative effort between the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics and the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.
The database team is currently developing a series of evidence-based reviews focusing on the use of animal sentinel data in human health decision-making. "To do this," Rabinowitz said, "we have to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to a whole new field: the interface of animal and human health."
Meanwhile, experts at the Yale Center for Medical Informatics are creating state-of-the-art knowledge integration software and information visualization tools allowing users to explore the rich database. Animal health experts at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the nation's primary wildlife disease research facility, provided background on potential disease transmission between humans and wildlife for emerging diseases such as monkey pox, SARS, Avian influenza, West Nile Virus and Chronic Wasting Disease.
To access the database, please visit http://canarydatabase.