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Being relevant

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ANY veterinarians worried about their relevance in the world would do well to read a report published last week under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The UNEP's ‘Frontiers 2016′ report, which aims to identify emerging issues of environmental concern, lists the rise in diseases transmitted from animals to people and the illegal trade of live animals (including disease transmission) as two of the six main emerging threats facing the world today.1 The other issues discussed in the report are the relationship between the private sector and the environment, microplastics in the environment and the food chain, unavoidable impacts of climate change, and toxin accumulation in crops. Thus, of the six challenges identified in the report, at least two would benefit directly from veterinary input.

The relevance of vets to society has been debated within the profession for some time. Indeed, in a commentary published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2004, Frederick Leighton, of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, argued that the veterinary profession was losing relevance to the extent that it would fail the ‘lifeboat test’; that is, if a ship were sinking and places on a limited number of lifeboats were being allocated on the basis of society's need for the services provided by the survivors, it would not find a place.2 In a Viewpoint article published in Veterinary Record in 2013, the heads of each of the seven veterinary schools in the UK urged the veterinary profession ‘not to forget the science’ if it wanted to remain credible and relevant.3 More recently, the report of the UK Vet Futures project identified asserting the veterinary profession's ‘wider role in society’, including its roles in public health and environmental sustainability and recognition of the critical importance of its scientific expertise, as one of its six key ambitions for 2030 (VR, November 21, 2015, vol 177, pp 502, 503-504). There are, of course, other ways in which vets can demonstrate their relevance, but the UNEP report clearly highlights an important opportunity for them to show their worth.

The chapter on diseases transmitted from animals to people in the UNEP report, written by Delia Grace, Bernard Bett, Hu Suk Lee and Susan Macmillan, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya, draws attention to the ‘blurred lines of emergent disease and ecosystem health’ and points out that the 20th century was a period of unprecedented ecological change, with dramatic reductions in natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and equally dramatic increases in people and animals. ‘Never before have so many animals been kept by so many people – and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals through the biophysical environment to affect people causing zoonotic diseases or zoonoses. The result has been a worldwide increase in emerging zoonotic diseases, outbreaks of epidemic zoonoses as well as a rise in foodborne zoonoses globally, and a troubling persistence of neglected zoonotic diseases in poor countries.’

It points out that about 60 per cent of all infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases, and includes the startling statistic that one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months. While many of these diseases originate in wildlife, livestock often serve as an epidemiological bridge between wildlife and human infections; this, it says, is especially the case for intensively reared livestock which are often genetically similar within a herd or flock and therefore lack the genetic diversity that provides resilience.

Discussing the drivers for zoonotic disease emergence, it considers, among other things, changes in the environment as a result of human encroachment on natural ecosystems and the effects of climate change; changing interactions between human and animal hosts, with increasing demand for milk and meat leading to increases in livestock populations in developing countries which increase the likelihood of disease transmission; and changes in the pathogens themselves as they evolve to exploit new hosts or adapt to changing evolutionary pressures. Discussing possible management strategies, it notes that zoonotic diseases affect human health, agriculture, the economy and environmental integrity, and that managing them requires an integrated, intersectoral approach. It draws attention to the importance of a One Health approach in tackling zoonotic diseases with environmental considerations forming an integral part of this. It makes the point that ‘a significant constraint to involving agriculture in the control of zoonoses is the lack of collaboration between medical and veterinary authorities, leaving zoonoses concerns sidelined.’ It also highlights the need for collaborative, multidisciplinary and multinational research, and for improved disease surveillance and response capacity. It makes the point, however, that, ultimately, success will depend on addressing the root cause of disease emergence – the fact that human activities are imposing extreme stresses on ecosystems and their ability to function: ‘Addressing the problem at the necessary foundational level calls for reconciling human development within the biophysical environment. The ecosystem services on which the health of animals, people and the planet depend must be restored, safeguarded and prized.’

Some of the disease challenges discussed in the report, along with examples of initiatives aimed at tackling them, will be familiar to those who followed the series of articles on One Health in Veterinary Record in 2014/15, and it is good to see them being highlighted at this level. Meanwhile, one of the recommendations in the Vet Futures report was to ‘increase collaboration between veterinary and human health professionals and environmental organisations in line with the One Health concept’. The RCVS, BVA and British Veterinary Nursing Association are holding a Vet Futures summit at the Royal Veterinary College in London next month (see p 588 of this issue), and the UNEP's report should certainly add impetus to these proceedings.


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