Veterinarians, who are generally believed by common people as doctors for animals are in reality the only doctors educated to protect the health of both animals and people. Public health focuses on disease prevention, prolonging life and promoting health in our society, and veterinarians play a critical role in that aspect.
They work to address the health and welfare needs of every species of animal in particular besides their roles in food safety, environmental protection, research and importantly the public health.
Since the advancement of scientific knowledge, scientists have noticed the similarity between diseases in animals and humans. Rudolph Virchow, a German physician, coined the term zoonosis and famously said: "Between animal and human medicine there are no dividing lines – nor should there be. The object is different but the experience obtained constitutes the basis of all medicine."
According to the World Health Organization, "human health inextricably linked to animal health and production", and this notion has recently showed the way for “One Health concept” which is aimed to improving the life of both the humans, domesticated animals and even the wildlife through strong ties between human and animal health experts.
Public health focuses on disease prevention, prolonging life and promoting health in our society, and veterinarians play a critical role in that aspect.
Veterinary practitioners contribute to public health during routine practice of managing diseases of animals that may affect the owners and their families and the surrounding communities.
Specific examples of public health activities include performing routine health examinations, maintaining immunization regimens, implementing parasite control programs, advising on the risks of animal contact for immuno-compromised individuals besides facilitating the use of guide and service dogs for people with disabilities, promoting the benefits of the human-animal bond for the disabled and elderly, as well as war veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition to these direct services, veterinary practitioners especially in developed countries report disease events and trends to state public health and regulatory agencies, collaborate with human medical counterparts on zoonotic diseases and advise local health boards and commissions. These relationships would not exist without any inextricable link between animal and human health.
In addition to managing direct zoonotic diseases in animals, veterinarians also diagnose, investigate, and control indirect zoonoses and non-zoonotic communicable diseases that affect human health.
Examples include coccidioidomycosis among pet animals, foot and mouth disease, fowl pox, and many other diseases that affect the food supply, the national economy, and the livelihood of the nation’s farmers.
Veterinarians as researchers in past history have made many important contributions to human health like control of malaria and yellow fever etc besides production of drugs and biological products for human and animal use.
They supervise international and interstate shipments of animals, test for diseases that could threaten animal and human health or our food supply and manage campaigns to prevent and eradicate diseases, such as tuberculosis, that pose threats to animal and human health.
More traditionally, veterinary clinicians and regulators continue to play a crucial role in ensuring a safe, stable and healthy food supply with public health benefits.
Many factors contribute to the increasing vulnerability of livestock to infectious diseases and ultimately posing a threat to the very public health.
These include increasing intensity and concentration of production agriculture, genetic convergence of many food-producing species, accessibility of livestock to external contact (despite rigorous biosecurity measures), scale and frequency of animal transport (domestic and international), increasing size of feedlots, lack of immunity to foreign animal diseases, the relatively porous nature of national borders, and the significant shortage of trained foreign animal disease diagnosticians and epidemiologists.
Although many significant diseases transmitted by food-producing animals (e.g. brucellosis, tuberculosis, Q fever, etc) have been eradicated or controlled in developed countries like North America and Europe by pasteurization and inspections at slaughter, but these are still ubiquitous in our country and provides a constant threat to the people either through direct contact with the infected animals or indirectly through a food chain with the result of significant fraction of the national burden of morbidity and mortality of humans.
India, which is endemic for rabies accounts for 36% of the world’s deaths due to rabies and causes 18-20 thousand deaths every year. Further, about 30-60% of reported rabies cases and deaths in India occur in children under the age of 15 years as bites that occur in children often go unrecognized and unreported.
Although, Rabies deaths in human are 100% preventable through prompt and appropriate medical care but the most cost-effective strategy being considered for preventing rabies in people is vaccinating dogs; a job entrusted to the veterinarian.
In our state also, there is high prevalence of zoonotic diseases like Rabies, TB, Brucellosis etc, among animals which poses a constant threat to the people to acquire these diseases either directly by contact with the animals or indirectly through food chain thereby endangering the public health.
Recently in Gandebal district only, a sero-prevalence of brucellosis, one of the important zoonotic diseases causing pyrexia of unknown origin in humans, has been found around 35% among sheep only and how many people will get infection from these animals especially handlers and through food chain is really a matter of great concern and this is where the veterinarians are supposed to intervene in order to safeguard the public health.
Further, it is very pertinent to mention here emerging diseases like swine flu, bird flu with ability to cause widespread devastation among human population, where early diagnosis, prevention and control of infection is the main strategy to prevent human population from contracting infection.
These diseases are being considered with a potential to wipe out whole population and these recent threats to public health warrant collaborative action as a strategy to effectively manage such public health issues in future.
So to ensure the public health in reality, it is now emphasized that there must be coordination and team work between veterinarians, public health practitioners and physicians, both in academia and in clinical practice, in order to tap into expertise that exists within both professions with the final aim of welfare of all the people with respect to overall health.
Further, a concrete policy needs to be framed at state level keeping on board all those associated with public health issues and to ensure coordinated work among them all in order to meet the current issues and to handle any public health challenge in the future.
Author is an Assistant Professor, Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, SKUAST-K