The Arctic is experiencing unprecedented climate change, resulting in multiple interconnected challenges for the wellbeing of northern communities. Among these is emergence of zoonotic diseases – those that affect both animals and people. Two important bacterial zoonoses have recently emerged in Inuit Nunangat: Erysipelothrix, a novel cause of widespread mortality for muskoxen, and Brucella, which has increased in prevalence in caribou and muskoxen.
Together, these diseases pose serious risks to the sustainability of these wildlife species upon which communities depend. Moreover, they are a public health risk for those handling or consuming country foods. We aim to bring together Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) and western knowledge to gain a better understanding of these emerging zoonoses and how they are impacted by climate change, and then use this knowledge to protect human health and inform wildlife management. Our main objectives are to 1) understand why these diseases have increased in caribou and muskoxen; 2) understand and predict what risk they pose to people and animals; and 3) develop mitigation strategies to protect human health and conserve wildlife for generations to come. We will use a multi-pronged approach, building on our team’s long-standing Community-Based Wildlife Health Surveillance program in Nunavut and NWT. This program brings IQ together with hunter-based sampling and scientific discovery to monitor caribou and muskox health and provides a structural and collaborative foundation for the project. Training, capacity strengthening and knowledge exchange forms an integral part of our program. We will collect and mobilize IQ to better understand these diseases, with results informing research questions, methods, and predictive models for current climate change scenarios, as well as to identify important vulnerabilities that could be targeted for better risk mitigation. We will expand sampling efforts and use a combination of laboratory, bioinformatics and mathematical approaches that are informed by IQ to understand historical transmission patterns, potential reasons for emergence, climate and other environmental risk factors for exposure, and the impact of Brucella and Erysipelothrix on caribou and muskox populations and the Inuit communities who rely on them. Additionally, we will explore community needs and interests for rapid, in-community diagnostic testing for Brucella for improved food safety and increased confidence in country foods, and will develop and pilot a prototype of such a test. Every step of the research will be done through collaboration among Inuit, and UK and Canadian academic researchers, and involves skills training and employment within each community. Our research on emerging pathogens at the human/wildlife interface addresses the theme of Arctic ecosystems and their impact on Inuit communities and will 1) increase capacity at the community level to detect and respond to emerging infectious diseases in wildlife; 2) increase food security and safety through knowledge exchange and mitigative strategies; 3) generate data to promote the sustainability of muskox and caribou populations, on which local communities rely for subsistence, employment and economic opportunities; and 4) contribute to the translation and dissemination of Indigenous knowledge and its integration into research and management.