Veterinarians make significant contributions to human health

In 1999, New York veterinarian Tracey McNamara noticed a few dead crows around the Bronx Zoo, where she was employed. As the head of pathology for the Wildlife Conservation Society that was headquartered at the zoo, McNamara was in a position to explore the situation in depth. But when birds in the zoo also began dying, the cause took on special importance.

Pathology tests revealed the birds were dying of West Nile Virus, which had not previously been seen in the United States. Because of her efforts, public health officials were able to connect the dots and identify a mysterious viral disease affecting New York City residents as West Nile. McNamara is credited with saving human lives by catching the disease quickly.

McNamara is just one example of how veterinarians play an important role in our communities. We tend to think of vets as the people who spay/neuter or vaccinate our cats and dogs, but some veterinarians contribute quite a bit to human health, too. With avian flu and other illnesses making the jump between animals and people, it’s an especially important time to better understand such diseases.

According to the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine web site, “Public health veterinarians are hired to investigate food-borne disease outbreaks, evaluate the safety of food and water, and study the effects of biologic and environmental contamination.” These vets typically work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent and control disease and make sure food is safe; for the U.S. Public Health Service to study diseases transmissible to humans; and for the military providing care for government-owned animals and doing research.

A Congressional bill called the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act would give $1.5 billion over 10 years to expand vet schools and increase vets trained in public health and research. Sometimes, as in McNamara’s case, veterinarians are the first people to spot a disease and have the training to make vital connections that affect animal and human welfare.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is a sponsor of the bill, formally knows as Senate Bill 914, which was introduced in May by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard. Allard, a retired veterinarian, hopes to open more opportunities in the profession to study relationships between animal and human health.

“Veterinarians are in a position to detect and respond early to emerging infectious diseases and potential bioterror threats,” Allard said in a statement. “By increasing the number of graduates and improving our research capabilities in veterinary medicine, we can make sure that our country is ready to face the public health challenges of the future.”

Reducing and understanding biological threats isn’t the only area where veterinarians can play a part in improving human lives. At a recent summit of leaders from the veterinary and humane organizations in Oregon, held at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in late October, building healthier communities was a main focus.

In particular, attendees considered the issue of animal abuse and when vets can or should report it. Because animal abuse often occurs in domestic settings where human children are also neglected or abused, it directly affects the welfare of kids in our community. The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association plans to develop a brochure on the links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, as well as hold seminars for its members about the issue.

The College of Veterinary Medicine was also encouraged to add coursework on animal neglect and abuse to its curriculum. The hope is that veterinarians will learn to recognize signs of abuse and when it is appropriate to report problems to law enforcement.

As well, we can’t forget that veterinarians keep our pets healthy and well, and healthy pets contribute to our improved lifestyles. Studies show that pet ownership can lead to lower blood pressure and stress levels (well, unless the pet misbehaves!). We exercise with our dogs, cuddle with our cats, and spend time petting and interacting with our other pets. It’s important to know that we have a resource to keep the furry members of our families happy and healthy.

No matter what area of veterinary medicine they practice, veterinarians contribute to the welfare of animals and the health of the public. The care of my companion animals is extremely important to me, and I value my vets’ knowledge and skill in making sure they are healthy and fixing any problems. But it’s also nice to be reminded that veterinarians are there for more than that.