Infectious diseases


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While policy makers fret over the obstacles in developing biosensor technology, the best and cheapest biosensors are already distributed globally but generally ignored: They’re called animals.

Such a statement is no surprise to those in the veterinary community. What surprised Catmanager was where I read the statement: at the start of a column posted yesterday on the Web site of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The author, Laura Kahn, urges greater funding for programs designed to monitor for emerging infectious diseases. As examples of such programs, she cites the Univeristy of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine’s proposed Center for One Medicine, which would seek to foster closer ties between animal and human medicine; and the national zoo surveillance network developed by veterinary pathologist Tracey McNamara which successfully identified cases of West Nile virus well before public health officials did.

The Center for One Medicine is a wonderful idea, and as Kahn notes, it couldn’t be more timely:

The ecology of microorganisms is generally not taught in medical schools, so medical students might not see the importance of animal health on human health. But the increasing number of zoonotic agents infecting human populations illustrates the importance of this issue.

Kahn’s Web site column is apparently a corollary to an opinion piece published in the current Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Vol. 63, No. 2). In this second piece, titled “The Zoonotic Connection,” she makes a more direct appeal to veterinarians:

Veterinarians should play a leading role in the public health response and biomedical research needed to contain, understand, and ultimately prevent zoonotic disease outbreaks. Unfortunately, . . . the vast majority of them are not. Instead, most veterinarians choose to practice pet medicine. We need them to pursue careers to increase our understanding of how and why diseases spread between species. To encourage them to do so, more training grants should exist for veterinarians who want . . . study . . . the anatomic, physiologic, and pathophysiologic processes across species—including humans.

Catmanager is disappointed that Kahn seems to believe veterinarians who provide medical care to companion animals are not also already performing (or have the potential to perform) significant surveillance roles as part of the public health response to zoonoses. Nonetheless, I applaud her call for increased policy and fiscal attention to the issue and her recognition of the vital role veterinarians play in protecting public health.