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Veterinarians Play A Vital Role In Maintaining Public Health

Veterinarians Play A Vital Role In Maintaining Public HealthVeterinarians belong on the front lines of the fight against infectious diseases, says Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine expert George Saperstein, DVM.

No. Grafton, Mass. [03.17.06] This article was originally published March 13, 2006, in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. It is reprinted below in its entirety with permission from the Telegram & Gazette.

Preventing a bird flu pandemic by developing a vaccine for humans is like trying to stop a volcano by sprinkling water on the lava flow. Our first step must be to control outbreaks in animal populations - before the flu mutates.

More than 75 percent of all infectious diseases emerging in the last 50 years have been zoonotic diseases, those that move from animals to people. Besides avian flu, these diseases include AIDS, Lyme disease, mad cow disease and SARS.

Most people are not familiar with the veterinarian as public health practitioner. But when avian flu reaches America, it will be a public health veterinarian who first detects it in a migratory or domesticated bird. These are veterinarians who understand the biology and behaviors of animals, the agents that infect them, the systems that house them, the environments in which they live, and the risks to people who care for them.

This little-known breed of veterinarian is a member of the same profession that lovingly takes care of your cat, dog or hamster. But the ultimate patient is also humankind.

Overall, there is a lack of awareness of how veterinary medicine is tied into public health, a dearth of positions for veterinarians in public health, and insufficient funds for research in this field. Of the approximately 80,000 veterinarians in the United States, only about 4 percent are working in federal, state or local government or in the uniformed services. These few public health veterinarians and researchers are marshaling meager resources to create national and international surveillance systems for avian influenza in both wildlife and domestic animals.

Let me repeat: The key to preventing a pandemic of avian influenza in people is a swift response to an outbreak in animal populations - before the flu mutates.

It seems obvious, but it still needs to be said: America needs more students trained for careers in public practice and veterinary research, strengthening our nation's ability to develop critical emergency response plans to protect people, animals and the environment against outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

These veterinarians safeguard our pets, livestock and wildlife, the quality and safety of the food we consume, and ... our own health.

Veterinary education in the United States is superb, but it is not free. Because of declining government support, the nation's professional veterinary capacity has not changed significantly in 20 years, and it has been nearly 30 years since the federal government has provided general funding for veterinary schools. Veterinarians trained three or four decades ago are now retiring, and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has reported that the U.S. needs approximately 350 additional veterinary students annually to meet the nation's public health needs.

The proposed Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act (S.914, H.R.2206) would help protect the United States against accidental or intentional disease outbreaks that endanger public health or threaten our nation's food supply. This act would provide $1.5 billion over 10 years to expand the size of veterinary schools and increase the number of veterinarians working in public health practice and biomedical research.

Kudos to Sen. Wayne A. Allard, R-Colo. - a retired veterinarian - and Rep. Charles W. Pickering Jr., R-Miss., for introducing this bill, as well as to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and the 14 other members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have joined them as cosponsors. Increasing the number of veterinarians who apply their skills to public health practice and biomedical research will provide assurance that more veterinarians are on the public health team when we need them.

George Saperstein, DVM, is assistant dean for research at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

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