The Human Consequences of Animal Health

“On the heels of avian influenza, the medical community has realized that, if you want to deal with emerging diseases, 75% of which come from animals, you have to deal with the animal side of the equation.”

Stephen Dale

At its broadest level, the work of Canadian Craig Stephen and Sri Lankan Sam Daniel is all about mobilizing the ground-level resources that could help prevent a disease pandemic.

“On the heels of avian influenza,” says Dr Stephen, a University of Calgary veterinarian, “the medical community has realized that, if you want to deal with emerging diseases, 75% of which come from animals, you have to deal with the animal side of the equation.”

Their work has several parts. Improving veterinary sciences in universities will funnel better-trained people into government agencies and public health bodies so that information flows smoothly from the farm to the veterinarians to public health, because time is of the essence in these situations.

Transferring knowledge to communities is also essential, since farmers who can recognize disease and take steps to contain it will serve as an early warning system in the case of an outbreak. The third plank is to have better educated farmers so that animals are in better health overall, reducing the possibilities that animals succumb to disease in the first place. “We are trying to take a preventative approach,” says Dr Stephen.

Timely research

Support of their project through the Teasdale-Corti program came at an opportune juncture.

Around the same time that the grant was awarded, says Sam Daniel, acting secretary of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Estate Infrastructure and Livestock Development, (who previously collaborated with Dr Stephen through Veterinarians without Borders), Sri Lanka’s cabinet had recruited some 46 additional public health specialists to work on food-borne diseases, food safety issues, and improving meat inspection.

“We are in the process of developing our veterinary public health,” he says.

Sri Lanka’s interest in this area stems from more than pandemic prevention. For one, better veterinary services could also help the country improve its performance in relation to some Millennium Development Goals, such as child nutrition levels.

“One way you can improve that picture,” illustrates Dr Stephen, “is to increase the quality of product on farm. [Milk consumption will increase, for example] if you can build more resilient, healthy herds that aren’t going to be affected by disease. On the other hand, if avian influenza came in tomorrow and wiped out all the poultry, well, poultry and fish are primary animal protein sources, and that has huge implications.”

Economic spinoffs

Economic issues also figure prominently. “As Sri Lanka’s agricultural economy grows, [it’s important to ensure that] disease is not going to be an issue that’s an impediment to trade,” says Dr Stephen.

The economic implications of better veterinary medicine are illustrated by the case of ornamental fish, which account for a full 6% of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). “You’ve got this large export market that’s going to require these fish aren’t transporting things like resistant bacteria,” says Dr Stephen.

“There are people in the fisheries department saying ‘this is a really good way for the smallholder farmer to make a little extra income.’ So people are working on making cheap cement ponds, and others are working on making fish diets from table scraps”— all of which represents significant economic spinoffs both domestically and in the export market.

Published: 25 Jan 2008

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