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Vets in a changing environment

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IF the sars outbreak of 2002/03 drew the public's attention to the potential for international travel to help spread disease rapidly around the world, the recent appearance of bluetongue in northern Europe has similarly raised public awareness of the potential for climate change to extend the geographical range of insect-borne diseases. Following its appearance in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, northern France and Luxembourg in 2006, some five degrees further north than ever before, bluetongue survived the winter to re-emerge in these countries in 2007, spreading outwards to reach England, Denmark and, most recently, Switzerland. It seems unlikely that it will not again make its presence felt in 2008.

Speaking in Rome last month, the chief veterinary officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Dr Joseph Domenech, said that the arrival of bluetongue in the uk provided a further indication that animal diseases were advancing globally. ‘No country can claim to be a safe haven with respect to animal diseases,’ he said, adding that countries should strengthen their veterinary services and that ‘Early detection of viruses together with surveillance and control measures are needed as effective defence measures.’

It is not just in the field of animal health that climate change is causing concern. The World Health Organization (who) announced recently that the theme for World Health Day in 2008, the who's 60th anniversary year, will be ‘protecting health from climate change’. Noting that climate change is finding itself in an increasingly central position on the international agenda and that health professionals are on the frontline in dealing with the impacts of climate change, the who's director general, Dr Margaret Chan, said, ‘We need to put public health at the heart of the climate change agenda.’

If that is true for health professionals, it must also apply to the veterinary profession, not least because many diseases are zoonotic or originate in animals and tackling them effectively requires an integrated approach. As the boundaries between human and animal health become blurred, so, too — with concerns about climate change, a growing world population and increased demand for food and other resources — does the distinction between health and the environment. This makes the theme ‘One world, one health, one medicine’, discussed at the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual convention in Washington dc this summer (VR, July 28, 2007, vol 161, p 109), all the more appropriate.

In the uk, the Government, through defra, has been pushing the environmental cause for some time, some might say at the expense of agriculture. To an extent, the shift in emphasis can be attributed to the efforts of the former Secretary of State at defra, Mr David Miliband, who, during his brief tenure in the department, did much to promote the concept of ‘one planet living’ that had been developed by wwf, extending it to embrace ‘one planet farming’ (see, for example, VR, January 13, 2007, vol 160, pp 33-34). Some might have seen this as so much hot air, but there is no doubt that his advocacy of the concept helped raise awareness of the issues surrounding climate change and the idea certainly took root in his department. In the uk, as elsewhere, the environment has moved up the agenda. Given that this is the case, where does the veterinary profession fit in?

The answer, potentially, is right in the middle of things. Vets have an obvious role in surveillance, control and research relating to animal diseases and diseases of public health significance — not just in terms of transboundary viral diseases, whose distribution may be affected by climate change and other pressures, but also endemic diseases, such as fasciolosis, the distribution of which may be affected by changing weather patterns locally. They also have a clear role in helping to increase food production efficiency, which will become more important as global demand increases and if, as seems likely, more of the world's productive land is given over to fuel production. The British Government seems rather to have given up of late on the idea that food security is an issue or that Britain needs to produce more food itself (VR, January 6, 2007, vol 160, p 1), but that could change as competition for resources intensifies and awareness of the financial and environmental costs (and, indeed, disease risks) of moving food around the globe increases. Vets also have a potential role in advising on environmental issues more directly, whether in advising on the environmental impact of different animal production systems, minimising waste or, by optimising animal feeding regimes and helping to find new uses for waste, helping to reduce animals' contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

With their broad perspective on disease and knowledge of different production systems, vets have much to contribute in a changing environment, but this will require wider recognition of what they can offer and, perhaps, a shift in the profession's perception of itself. If animal diseases are widening their horizons as a result of climate change and other factors, maybe the veterinary profession should broaden its horizons, too.

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