DVM Newsmakers: The Crossroads Veterinary Medicine; public health poised to merge in collective battle against zoonotic diseases

DVM Newsmakers: The Crossroads Veterinary Medicine; public health poised to merge in collective battle against zoonotic diseases

Sep 01, 2005

Veterinary medicine stands at the crossroads. "I think the next five to 10 years may be the most important time in the history of veterinary medicine. Its most important challenge is to re-establish its social responsibility," reports Dr. Lonnie King, director of the Office of Strategy and Innovation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and dean of Michigan State University's veterinary school.

King's comments followed the release of a National Research Council report assessing the framework of the prevention, detection and diagnosis of animal diseases (see DVM's news coverage). The 229-page, interdisciplinary report from the National Academies offers an analysis of the U.S. system for dealing with animal disease. King chaired the Committee on Assessing the Nation's Framework for Addressing Animal Diseases. In an exclusive interview with DVM Newsmagazine, King discussed his involvement with the report and its impact on veterinary medicine and education.

This social responsibility not only comes in the form of safeguarding animal health but also includes important leadership roles in biomedical research, public health, food systems, ecosystems and the environment.

"These 21st century challenges are no longer just about animals and agriculture; they are about an entire economic system," King says. "It is this point in time where talented individuals can influence the course of events for a number of generations to come."

Consider this:

  • 38,000 animals cross U.S. borders every day.
  • The illegal exotic animal trade in this country is estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion a year, ranking second only to drug trafficking.
  • The U.S. food agricultural system represents 12 percent of the gross domestic product.
  • 21 billion animals are produced for food and fiber around the world.
  • 75 percent of new emerging diseases are zoonotic.

Animals, people and agricultural products move around the world in quantities unprecedented in modern times, King explains. It fuels risk.

One of the 11 recommendations in the report calls for more collaboration between veterinary medicine and public health. It's not only the responsibility of government but practitioners alike to stave off this growing threat of introduction of foreign-animal disease or a serious domestic outbreak, he explains.

"That trust and collaborative spirit (between veterinary medicine and public health) needs to take place because we can't fight these zoonotic diseases on a single front; we need to fight them collectively."

Looming concerns

The result: "We in the United States are more vulnerable and more at-risk than ever before. People have to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of the system."

The committee's charge for the past 18 months was to assess the current system and make recommendations on ways to improve national efforts to prevent, detect and diagnose animal diseases (zoonotic and non-zoonotic). It's the first of three reports scheduled for publication. The second phase will look at surveillance and monitoring; the third will tackle response and recovery.

"We are finding the system hasn't changed enough to address these very contemporary 21st century problems," he adds.

The report, detailed in this month's cover story, made a series of 11 recommendations, including upgrades to existing facilities and adoption of predictive risk-based tools for resources in capacity and areas of highest probability for problems.

And this is not just a food animal issue.

The committee's statement of task reports, "Recent animal and human health events have illustrated that the national system for protecting animal health is now facing a continuum of host-parasite relationships involving public health, wildlife, ecosystems and food systems, operating in an increasingly complex global context. Adapting the current framework to this new reality will be both a major challenge and a national imperative."

The report sites a need for better systems to manage and plan for potential disease outbreaks.

The 2004 outbreak of exotic New Castle disease in California is case in point. While the poultry outbreak was serious, it also pushed the limits of USDA, APHIS and the state in its response. "I would really worry about the surge capacity or the ability to fend off if we had diseases in multiple sites or multiple diseases that might occur around the country." King says the systems need to improve, and the framework needs to be built around worst-case scenarios.

"This report was not about pointing fingers, but it was about the understanding of the contemporary problems we face today, and if it is going to take a different system, different infrastructure and different approach to really address that successfully."