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Taking toll for public health


The convergence of people, animals and the environment could be the most critical risk factor to the spread of infectious disease.

NATIONAL REPORT — The convergence of people, animals and the environment could be the most critical risk factor to the spread of infectious disease in the future.

Dr. Roger K. Mahr

It's a big hypothesis, but so is the threat, according a report from the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) One Health Task Force, which is recommending the formation of an independent, multi-disciplinary commission early next year.

Estimated at costing some $3 million for the next three years, the commission will study the problem and build a bridge to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between veterinary medicine, human medicine and public health.

Envision a time in your community when public-health officers, physicians and veterinarians are working in tandem to prevent, monitor and treat transmissible zoonotic diseases.

It's an initiative, so the vision goes, that seeks to improve the public-health infrastructure at the local, national and international levels, and recruit the expertise of every veterinary and human-health provider in the United States.

That's just to start. Phase II aims to conquer the rest of the world.

"We are talking about an unprecedented collaboration between veterinary medicine, human medicine and public health," explains Dr. Roger K. Mahr, former president of AVMA and champion of the cause with Ronald M. Davis, MD, past president of the American Medical Association (AMA).

Last year, the AMA passed a resolution supporting the One Health Initiative. Since then, the pounding from the initiative's faithful snared converts. So many that AVMA leadership catapulted One Health to the top of the association's agenda this year and beyond.

So what does it mean for veterinarians in private practice?

"The focus is to control infectious diseases and to ensure the availability of a safe food supply," Mahr explains. Another goal is improving communication between the various health providers.

"The local level is perhaps where this is most important as it relates to impacts to animals or people," Mahr adds.

One Health might call for a new approach for obtaining patient histories "as we recognize the significance of animal/human contact in the home or on the farm."

Some 800 diseases are considered multi-host pathogens that cross species. And over the last three decades, 75 percent of the world's emerging infectious diseases have jumped species. On the food safety side, there are now 21 billion animals used for food and fiber. The demand for animal protein is expected to spike another 50 percent by 2020.

The threat of the spread of disease has never been greater, the report says. Just consider international trade and the importation and exportation of food products. Case in point: The melamine contamination of Chinese-made wheat gluten, a primary culprit in last year's pet-food recall in the United States. Think about the environment, too. "Such degradation of the environment will continue to create favorable settings for the expansion of existing infectious diseases, as well as an increasing number of acute and chronic non-infectious disease events detrimental to both human and animal health," the task force report states.

"The impact on the world food supply is paramount," Mahr contends. "And it's happening at a time when the veterinary profession wrestles with a critical shortage of DVMs in rural areas."

More food for thought: What about non-transmissible diseases shared between humans and animals? Obesity is the top chronic health condition in people and the epidemic is just as bad in pets, with a whopping 30 percent to 40 percent of the dog and cat populations estimated as obese. Look at other conditions people share with pets — cancer, diabetes, heart disease and joint disease — and you can start to understand the depth of this kind of collaboration, Mahr says.

"Every profession has its defining moments — special points in time when talented individuals work cooperatively to influence the course of events for generations to come," the report concludes. "For veterinary medicine and the other health sciences, that time is now."

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