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Can vets help prevent the next pandemic?

When you think of vets, you probably picture the doctors who look after cats and dogs. But with a degree in veterinary medicine there are so many other avenues you can pursue. In addition to clinical practice, vets work in food safety and public health. In the UK this is organised by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Vets play a crucial role in preventing outbreaks of disease in both human and animal populations.

Epidemiology is defined as the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations. What this essentially means is that epidemiologists investigate outbreaks of disease in humans and animals. Examples include influenza and water and food-borne illnesses. Veterinary epidemiologists research the dynamics of animal pathogens, their transmission, occurrence and spread within and between populations. Understanding how diseases spread is important as it helps us to come up with ways to prevent transmission. Vets are trained to look at the bigger picture which means their involvement in public health and ‘One Health’ is crucial to food security and safety.

Why should we care about One Health?

For most of us, this is the first time a pandemic has stopped us in our tracks but this not the first time coronavirus has been in the spotlight. COVID-19 is the third novel coronavirus outbreak of the 21 st century. The first being SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003 followed by MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that have been found in dogs, cats, horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, humans and bats. They have been infecting people for a long time, making up 10-20% of all common colds in people.

Coronavirus is a type of RNA virus which can recombine and mutate to evolve. These viruses have the ability to transmit between species (interspecies transmission) and that is why they are so dangerous. Human incursions into wildlife habitats means that there are more frequent human to animal interactions which further increases the chance of exposure to new zoonotic diseases.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our health and economy. We need to better understand the mechanisms of disease action which can only come from research. Vets are needed to work alongside researchers to develop appropriate animal models to test antivirals. We need to evaluate what went wrong with our approach in suppressing it so that the next time we are faced with an outbreak we can minimise losses to life and the economy.

source: CDC One Health

One Health platforms allow us to develop policy and draw up research priorities around the issues of zoonotic diseases and antimicrobial resistance. This needs to occur simultaneously with attempts to coordinate the surveillance, control or eradication of various transboundary diseases. Vets can help investigate if new diseases can cause reverse zoonosis, transmitting diseases from humans to our pets and livestock.

Zoonotic pathogens do not respect geographical boundaries or species differences so we may face another pandemic in the future. We cannot stop the emergence of these new diseases, therefore we have to be better prepared because only with a united effort between human, veterinary and environmental communities will we be able to respond effectively to the next COVID-19.

Written by: Olivia Mahele

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