Flu outbreak: There's more than one doctor in the house
— Physicians aren't the only ones on the front lines of the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. Veterinarians play an important role, too.
Whether they're conducting research or serving as "disease detectives" at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, playing a critical role in state and local health departments or ensuring the health of our domestic swine herds by continuing to give regular vaccinations against influenza and increasing biosurveillance and security measures on farms, veterinarians are in the middle of the action when it comes to identifying and helping control the H1N1 flu.
"Veterinary medicine is so much more than giving vaccinations to pets," says Dr. Faye Sorhage, president of the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and the New Jersey state public health veterinarian. "When you look at all the new, emerging diseases, there are so many that are zoonotic in origin that require the expertise of both physicians and veterinarians. That's what's happening today. These experts are working side-by-side on this flu virus."
And that's a good thing for all involved, says Dr. Russell Currier, the executive vice president of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, the professional organization responsible for certifying veterinary specialists who work in food animal health and public health.
"This new outbreak shows that we have emerging infectious diseases that can spread very quickly," he said. "It took Magellan three years to circumnavigate the globe, but you can do it now in a day."
Sorhage echoes those concerns.
"Globalization is adding to our concerns, which makes increased surveillance, detection, testing and research, especially when it comes to these new viruses and zoonotic diseases, so important," she said. "The situation mandates the participation of skilled veterinarians working in these areas."
It's long been known that many diseases affecting people have animal origins. Take, for example, West Nile virus, monkeypox, Ebola – and some types of influenza. Veterinarians play a critical role in identifying, controlling and helping treat all of them.
"This traditional inter-relationship between disciplines has existed for a long time and continues to grow stronger every day," Currier said. "We have a history of physicians working with animal diseases and veterinarians working on human diseases. We need the physician, the veterinarian, the virologist, the epidemiologist and the environmental scientist to research these diseases. This flu episode brings into sharp focus the importance of one medicine."
Dr. Roger K. Mahr, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), has championed the One Health concept since his installation as AVMA president in 2006, when he made it the cornerstone of his term in office.
Mahr continues that effort today in his duties as project director for the One Health Joint Steering Committee, and in light of the challenges the world is facing with the H1N1 outbreak, a spotlight on a united approach to world health couldn't be timelier.
"The newly emerging H1N1 virus clearly underscores the need to embrace the One Health concept, which is the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines, working locally, nationally and globally, to attain optimal health for people, animals and our environment," Mahr said. "The basis for understanding and addressing the 2009 H1N1 virus, as well as other emerging and potentially emerging diseases, is that a changing environment populated by interconnected animals and people creates integrated challenges. These challenges require integrated solutions and call for collaborative leadership."
Dr. Peggy Carter, president of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, said the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak once again highlights the role veterinarians play in keeping both animals and people healthy and safe.
"People and animals are aligned in a new health paradigm, just like our banks are linked in a global financial system," Carter said. "This really is one team, one fight."
The AVMA and its more than 78,000 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health. Visit the AVMA 2009 H1N1 landing page for more information and updates about the veterinary connection to the H1N1 flu virus issue.