- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Like canaries in a coal mine, sick animals — cats, crows and most everything in between — could be early-warning sentinels of bioterrorism attacks, disease and other human health hazards, according to the Yale School of Medicine.

Researchers announced yesterday that they have created a massive “Canary Database” of animal-disease reports to provide a practical link, they say, between animal and human health.

“This concept of ‘canary in a coal mine’ suggest that animals may be useful sentinels for human environmental health hazards,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, the project director.

His basic premise is that animals keel over to environmental hazards before their human counterparts — a fact that could be exploited for the public good.

“We have to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to a whole new field: the interface of animal and human health,” Dr. Rabinowitz noted.

Of course, this is not a novel concept. For centuries, miners toted caged canaries into the earth with them, according to the Bureau of Mines. If the birds stopped warbling or dropped from their perches, it meant carbon monoxide or another toxic gas was present, and it was time to run for one’s life.

It was brutal — but it worked.

More recently, cats in Japan garnered considerable public attention after developing an alarming syndrome called “dancing cat fever” in Japan after eating fish contaminated with mercury.

There is also continued hubbub in the news and among advocacy groups whenever a deformed frog is found in polluted rivers, a chicken expires from avian flu or yet another crow drops from the sky with West Nile fever.

Despite such frequent reports, Dr. Rabinowitz thinks the public-health community can’t make practical use of what’s out there.

“The potential for animal data to provide important evidence regarding environmental risks to human health seems obvious,” he writes in his analysis.

Tapping into “animal-sentinel literature,” however, is another thing. Some of it is obscure, plus there’s not much communication between veterinarians and “human health professionals,” he said.

Until now. Enter Dr. Rabinowitz’s initial panacea for the problem — “The Canary Database of Animals as Sentinels of Human Environmental Hazards,” which combines resources at Yale and the National Wildlife Health Center, an agency within the U.S. Geological Survey.

Now up and running and accessible through the Internet, the unprecedented collection contains 1,236 studies conducted from 1966 to 2002, culled from millions of references for their relevance to human health.

Pets, livestock and wildlife were all part of the mix, including pigs with hepatitis, fish with lowered testosterone and a dog with cancer because of its owner’s use of herbicide. Could the base prove a plausible resource for the Department of Homeland Security as well? Perhaps.

Dr. Rabinowitz noted that “non-human animals could be more sensitive to many of the agents that are potential biological or chemical weapons” and could therefore be the “sentinels for a terrorist attack.”

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