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Achievers: Francisco Olea-Popelka and the Zoonotic TB Sub-Section

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“The Union has been crucial to my work because it offers a unique platform for collaborating with physicians, veterinarians and public health workers from all over the world.”


Diseases and infections that are naturally transmitted between animals and humans – zoonoses – pose a complex public health challenge that can only be addressed by interdisciplinary professionals and stakeholders working together.  Recently the increasing number of emerging and re-emerging zoonoses, including tuberculosis, has heightened public awareness of these diseases and raised the visibility of an important group within The Union’s membership: the Zoonotic TB Sub-Section.

Currently chaired by veterinary epidemiologist Dr Francisco Olea-Popelka, the Zoonotic TB Sub-Section is a highly committed and active group of Union members who organise conference sessions, encourage interaction and collaboration, and create resources to increase professional and public awareness of this issue.

TB is an infectious, contagious disease caused by mycobacteria; and different species of mycobacteria have complex cross-infection patterns between livestock, wildlife, and humans. This is especially true in developing countries, due to the consumption of unpasteurised dairy products and undercooked meat, and, in rural areas, at the human-animal interface. While Mycobacterium tuberculosis is recognised as the cause of TB in humans, the available evidence strongly suggests that other members of the M TB complex, including M. bovis (the causal agent of bovine TB) and non-tuberculous mycobacterias are significantly under-reported as causes of TB in humans.

“The work we do has a strong social component,” says Olea-Popelka, “because zoonotic TB continues to affect people, especially underserved communities in developing countries.”  

Dr Olea-Popelka’s own interest in zoonoses began when he was growing up in rural Chile, and there was a large outbreak of trichinosis, a disease that humans acquire by eating undercooked meat from pigs infected with the parasite Trichinella. As a veterinarian, his first experience with TB was 16 years ago when he worked on a project investigating the risk of humans getting TB from eating goat cheese made from unpasteurised milk.  Through this experience, he realized the critical importance of connecting veterinary medicine with human health, in what is sometimes referred to today as the “One Health” approach.

“I have always been interested in public health and the ‘big picture’ components of disease, says Olea-Popelka, and this perspective has led him to a global career studying diseases at the interface of livestock, wildlife, and humans in different environments.

His research has primarily focused on mycobacterial infections and TB; and his multidisciplinary approach takes into account environmental, socio-economic, cultural, political, and other components in conjunction with the disease-causing agent.

From his base at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in the United States, he collaborates with colleagues in different disciplines from around the world with current research including a study of the factors relevant to controlling TB in cattle and badgers in Ireland; identifying the risk factors for TB in elephants and evaluating elephant TB diagnostic tools and treatments; and evaluating diagnostic and screening methods for TB in South Africa’s lions and Cape buffalo.  He will also be part of an international team conducting field research to assess the risk of transmitting zoonotic TB between cattle and humans in India, Kenya, and Mexico and between humans and elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

“Participating in The Union has been crucial to my work because it offers a unique platform for collaborating with physicians, veterinarians, and public health workers from all regions of the world”, says Olea-Popelka, who first joined The Union in 2010 .

As Chair of the Zoonotic TB Sub-Section for the next two years, Olea-Popelka looks forward to working in close collaboration with working group leaders, Dr Adrian Muwonge and Dr Alejandro Perera, and all the Sub-Section members.

“We are an international and multidisciplinary group”, he says, “and we’re very committed to emphasize and communicate the need for closer cross-professional collaboration to better prevent, diagnose and treat zoonotic TB in high-risk areas of the world”.

In November 2013, the Sub-Section launched a new working group, ‘Creating Global Awareness of Zoonotic TB’ whose main goal is to increase awareness of zoonotic TB risk. Plans include creating posters and brochures, as well as online material, to highlight the findings of different studies, projects and available data on this issue for audiences such as physicians and veterinarians, diagnostic scientists, researchers, public health professionals, and regulators.

“There are tremendous opportunities for the human and veterinary fields to share and combine expertise”, says Olea-Popelka, “and we are confident that, working together, we will have a broad positive impact on efforts to better understand the complexities of mycobacterial infections and TB, and thus address the prevention, diagnosis, and control challenges posed by TB in different species”.