Sri Lanka project trains health specialists

Veterinary pathologist Dr. Ted Leighton was one of four Canadian representatives who recently travelled to Sri Lanka for the launch of a research and development project that marks a significant step forward in the Asian country's endeavours to manage its wildlife health issues.

The four-year project is funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) which will contribute $873,200 towards the development of human resources for the newly established Sri Lanka Wildlife Health Centre (SLWHC).

The IDRC's contribution will generate new information concerning wildlife-human health interactions in Sri Lanka while developing a new cohort of wildlife health scientists who will continue working with the wildlife health centre on similar issues.

"Three Sri Lankan veterinarians will work on natural science research projects involving some aspect of diseases that are transmissible from Sri Lankan wildlife to people," explains Leighton, a professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). "Two will train as veterinary pathologists and one as a veterinary epidemiologist."

The project also includes a social science component that will involve three graduate students – one from Sri Lanka and two from Canada. Their studies will focus on social organization and the most effective ways to generate and mobilize knowledge so that it serves several different sectors of a society.

Leighton is the executive director of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (CCWHC) – a national organization among Canada's five veterinary colleges that applies the veterinary medical sciences to wildlife conservation and management, livestock and human health.

A key advocate for Sri Lanka's newly established centre, Leighton views the partnership between the two wildlife health organizations as a great way to build relationships, particularly between the WCVM and Sri Lanka's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of Peradeniya.

"It's a great opportunity for expanding international experience in both directions," says Leighton. "This should facilitate future research and student exchanges that will provide experiences in totally different parts of the world for our Canadian and Sri Lankan students."

Although their research topics are still being developed, a timetable has been established for the students, including the two Sri Lankan veterinarians who will be attending the WCVM for one term while completing their MPhil (Master of Science) degrees in veterinary pathology over three years.

"While the students are here at the WCVM, they will learn the skills of a veterinary pathologist," Leighton explains. "The whole Department of Veterinary Pathology has agreed to be the mentors and teachers of these two veterinarians."

The students will also be paired with research co-supervisors from the WCVM who will eventually travel to Sri Lanka where they'll help with the research and provide formal instruction to graduate students at the University of Peradeniya.

Leighton points out that Sri Lanka has a high population density and high biodiversity – both factors that increase the risk of pathogens moving from the wildlife to the human population.

"That's an important reason for Sri Lanka to work towards understanding and building their capacity for wildlife health management," says Leighton. "The Sri Lanka Wildlife Health Centre is aiming for a sustainable day-to-day program of wildlife health management, and this project will provide the trained people to operate that program."
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