US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in New Directions in Conservation Medicine: Applied Cases in Ecological Health, edited by A. Alonso Aguirre, Richard S. Ostfield, and Peter Daszak (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).


U.S. Government Work


Epidemiologic surveillance is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the "ongoing systematic and continuous collection, analysis, and interpretation of health data': The objective of surveillance is to generate data for rapid response to the detection of a disease of concern to apply prevention, control, or eradication measures as well as to evaluate such interventions. This is distinct from disease monitoring, which usually does not involve a particular response to disease detection.

Surveillance for wildlife diseases has increased in importance due to the emergence and re-emergence of wildlife diseases that are threats to human, animal, and ecosystem health, or could potentially have a negative economic impact. It has been estimated that 75% of emerging human diseases are zoonotic in origin, of which the majority originate from wildlife (Taylor et al. 2001). However, there are unique challenges concerning wildlife disease surveillance such that disease and pathogens can be very difficult to detect and measure in wild animals. These challenges have been described previously (Wobeser 2006), but one of the primary issues is that disease in wildlife often goes unrecognized, especially in remote locations. Furthermore, sick and dead animals are very difficult to detect, as animals will disguise the signs of illness or hide when diseased. Carcasses from diseased animals are also rapidly removed by scavengers or will rapidly decompose, rendering them suboptimal for diagnostic purposes. There is also a lack of validated diagnostic tests for most wildlife disease agents as well as baseline data. The paucity of laboratory capacity with expertise in wildlife disease diagnostic investigation is also an impediment. Finally, surveillance networks for wildlife diseases that perform field investigations and report disease events are under-developed in most regions of the world.

Despite these challenges, a number of very important epidemiological surveillance projects have been ongoing or recently developed, and some examples are described in this chapter. The examples are mostly drawn from the experiences of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) and are provided to illustrate the different surveillance strategies and sampling techniques that can be used and have proven successful. Some future directions for wildlife disease surveillance are also suggested.