Associate Professor Kathleen Alexander’s long-term study of human, wildlife, and environmental health in the Chobe District of Northern Botswana has produced significant results during the past year, landing her four separate appearances on the National Science Foundation’s home page!

Researchers have previously identified leptospirosis — a disease transmitted to humans by animals — as a significant health threat in Botswana. This two-phase disease begins with flu-like symptoms but can cause meningitis, liver damage, pulmonary hemorrhage, renal failure, and even death if untreated.

“The problem in Botswana and much of Africa is that leptospirosis may remain unidentified in animal populations but contribute importantly to human disease, possibly misdiagnosed as other more iconic endemic diseases such as malaria,” said Alexander. “Diseases such as leptospirosis that have been around for a very long time are often overlooked and underfunded amid the hunt for the next newly emerging disease.”

Alexander and post-doctoral associates Sarah Jobbins and Claire Sanderson identified banded mongoose in Botswana as being infected with Leptospira interrogans, the pathogen that causes leptospirosis. The animals, although wild, live in close proximity to humans, sharing scarce water resources and scavenging in human waste. The pathogen can pass to humans through soil or water contaminated with infected urine. Mongoose and other species are consumed as bushmeat, which may also contribute to leptospirosis exposure and infection in humans.

Alexander and other members of her research team also discovered that humans are passing antibiotic resistance to wildlife, especially in protected areas where numbers of humans are limited. Their study found that multidrug resistance among banded mongoose social groups was higher in the protected area than in groups living in village areas.

The research identifies the coupled nature of humans, animals, and the natural environment across landscapes, even those designated as protected,” Alexander said. “With few new antibiotics on the horizon, wide-scale antibiotic resistance in wildlife presents a critical threat to human and animal health. As humans and animals exchange microorganisms, the threat of emerging disease also increases.”

The study, co-authored by master’s student Risa Pesapane, reveals that humans and mongoose appear to be readily exchanging fecal microorganisms, increasing the potential for disease transmission. The researchers recommend closed sewage systems, wildlife-proofed trash receptacles, and prohibiting feeding poultry and livestock products from kitchen waste to either wildlife or domestic animals.

“As we change our natural environments, the modifications we make can in turn impact our own health,” said Alexander. “We are working with the Botswana authorities to minimize these impacts and develop sustainable approaches to the protection of human, wildlife, and ecosystem health.”