Six out of every 10 infectious diseases in people today are zoonotic, meaning they arise from animal populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
As a bovine veterinarian, what can you do to address the problem?
Perhaps more than you realize, says Audrey Ruple, DVM and assistant professor of One Health epidemiology at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“As veterinarians, we’re in a unique role to care for our animal patients and for our human clients as well, because we took an oath to advocate for both,” she says.
Ruple says the prevalence of zoonotic diseases points to an increased need for veterinarians and their human counterparts—general practitioners—to connect and work together today in ways most haven’t historically.
“I’m on the public health team at Purdue and I feel like we, as veterinarians, can bring a lot to the table,” Ruple says.
Many physicians agree. Ruple cites research conducted in northeast Ohio in 2006 showing that, even then, 53% of the 92 physicians surveyed said a collaborative relationship with a veterinarian who possessed specialty training in zoonoses would be valuable to their practice.
Pediatrician Patricia DeLaMora says that’s certainly been her experience.
“I’ve had parents of patients share their pet’s veterinary records with me,” says DeLaMora, who works at the Phyllis and David Komansky Children's Hospital at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
One of the most unique zoonotic disease concerns she has addressed to date involved a Madagascar monkey that bit a student on spring break. DeLaMora was able to talk with the veterinarian working with the primates who confirmed the animals were healthy and had been vaccinated—good news she was then able to share with the parents.
DeLaMora says a more common scenario when she collaborates with veterinarians is when she encounters potential lyme disease in a patient.
That’s a year-round concern today, because “there is no ‘tick season’ anymore,” she explains.
Ruple says the increased incidents of rabies in recent years concerns her. “We need to talk about this whenever we have conversations (with physicians and clients) about zoonotic disease,” she says. “We really shouldn’t be seeing this in the U.S.”
Veterinarians who diagnose an animal with a zoonotic disease—whether in the clinic or on the farm—can help educate the client, says Danelle Bickett-Weddle, associate director for the Center for Food Security and Public Health at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Veterinarians understand the potential health risks associated with transmission of zoonotic and animal-only infectious diseases,” she says. “Educating clients and staff on practical, easily implemented steps to protect themselves from zoonotic disease is an important professional task.”
Likewise, the general population needs a better understanding of what zoonotic diseases are, especially when a pet is diagnosed with one. “We need to explain to the client that this could affect them or a loved one, especially immunocompromised individuals,” Ruple says.
DeLaMora says when a veterinarian confirms the presence of a zoonotic disease, the veterinarian should feel comfortable reaching out to the family’s physician. “The more information I have, the better,” she says.
Ruple acknowledges historically there’s been a barrier—or at least a perception of one—between physicians and veterinarians.
“It’s not a commonplace practice to reach out, though research says 90% of people are willing to consider their veterinarian as part of their healthcare team,” she says.
In the years ahead, Ruple anticipates seeing more veterinarian-physician collaboration as estimates indicate up to 75% of emerging infectious diseases in human populations will be zoonotic.
“Bringing MDs and DVMs together and having conversations so we’re all on the same page is a great way to approach zoonotic diseases and One Health in clinical practice,” she says.
Ruple and DeLaMora shared their perspectives on veterinarian-physician connecting for the common good during a recent webinar hosted by the Viticus Group, formerly WVC.