MEAD
Allen Sullivan  /  AP
Dr. Danny Mead, an assistant research scientist in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, examines incubated cultures April 7 taken from mosquitoes.
updated 4/9/2004 3:33:04 PM ET 2004-04-09T19:33:04

When medical detectives track the source of a new outbreak, increasingly they look no farther than the animal world.

That’s because about 75 percent of all new infectious diseases — including high-profile ones like SARS, bird flu, monkeypox and West Nile virus — originate from animals.

As a result, veterinarians and other animal disease researchers are often needed to help combat these emerging germs among humans.

“Many of the world’s major diseases are either diagnosed or the initial control is done by veterinarians,” said Dr. Keith Prasse, dean of the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia. “They are on the front lines of public health itself.”

From bird flu to West Nile
Vets have helped investigate outbreaks on cruise ships and led field teams during the 2001 attacks of anthrax, traditionally a disease seen in cattle on farms.

“You’re just as likely to find a bioterrorist agent in an animal health diagnostic lab or vet office as a physician’s office or hospital,” said Dr. Lonnie King, dean of the Michigan State college of veterinary medicine.

Animal researchers have been instrumental in working to understand the avian flu outbreak in Asia and the West Nile virus at home. Both originated in birds.

Veterinarians routinely have been involved in public health matters such as in foodborne outbreaks or well-known diseases such as rabies. But it’s the new diseases that have created the demand for the expertise of vets.

'An epidemiological collision'
“We have a new world in terms of the epidemiological convergence of animal health” and human health, King said. “It’s an epidemiologic collision.”

The collision comes from an ever-shrinking planet that increasingly allows humans and animals to trade maladies. Humans have given tuberculosis to wildlife. Last year’s monkeypox cases in the Midwest was spread by prairie dogs bought as pets that were infected by imported African rodents carrying the disease.

While vets are important to disease control, it’s difficult to attract them to public health, Prasse said.

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“Too few veterinarians are acquiring the ... training necessary to pursue these career paths,” he said. “Our graduates are largely pursuing private practice.”

That’s because private practice for vets, just as for medical doctors, can be more lucrative than a career in public service. Another problem is that many vet students aren’t familiar with public health careers.

“I discovered public health by accident,” said Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Disease detectives
McQuiston thought she would embark on a career in pharmaceutical or vaccine research after graduating from Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. Instead, while helping investigate an outbreak in 1996 with the CDC, she discovered the importance of public health.

After vet school, she joined the CDC’s elite Epidemic Intelligence Service and now works in the agency’s rabies branch.

“I was so changed by my experience at CDC — I was very much inspired by working in public health. I wish I learned about it earlier,” she said.

The importance of vets is highlighted at the CDC, which has 80 vets on its staff as epidemiologists. The agency recently created a new office to coordinate its vets, who work in different disease branches, and to recruit new ones as future disease detectives. It’s also working to add veterinary data to its national disease tracking and reporting network.

“Our training is adapted to public health as a whole,” McQuiston said. That’s because vets are trained to think about health on a herd, or population, level.

“Herd health is really what public health is all about,” she said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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