Veterinary Public Health Education in an Interconnected World
Veterinary Public Health (VPH) can be defined as the contributions to the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of humans through an understanding and application of veterinary science. This short essay places the work of VPH and veterinary education within the framework of a trade-oriented and interconnected world, linking the evolving realities of developed, transitioning, and developing countries.
In recent years, the world has witnessed outbreaks of avian influenza (H5N1). The international response to H5N1 has been unprecedented. However, diseases such as brucellosis, rabies, cysticercosis, echinococcosis, leishmaniasis, and many others are for the most part left on the margins of animal health programmes. These neglected tropical diseases need to gain more political commitment and financial resources, particularly in the context of poverty alleviation, food security, and global public health.
It is now widely acknowledged that the range of threats and hazards of animal origin has expanded over the years. For example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and Escherichia coli O157:H7 have created more awareness in the general population about food safety issues. Also, dioxin contamination scandals and fraudulent adulteration of milk with melamine further illustrate the need for more oversight.
If anything, this suggests that the disease landscape that existed thirty years ago has radically changed, and that the approaches to address these hazards and threats have evolved to incorporate technological advances and new communication and information tools to make the work of veterinary professionals and public health officials more efficient. If VPH wants to remain a pivotal to health sciences, it must continue to be responsive to the needs and wants of societies.
After recent public health crises, doyens and experts agree that there is a need for the integration of new themes/topics to the curricula of graduate and post-graduate veterinary education programs, with specific emphasis on practical epidemiological training, outbreak investigations, enhancing communication and leadership skills, development of cultural sensitivity and local understandings, and an ability to engage in multifaceted, multidisciplinary teamwork.
The veterinary professionals coming out of educational institutions need to grasp that the overlap between transboundary animal diseases and veterinary public health is not limited to the pathogens being zoonotic agents; it also resides in that insidious animal diseases affect people's livelihoods, social resilience, and food security. Furthermore, veterinarians need to get acquainted with socio-economical aspects of animal production and health policies, prevailing (national and international) regulations, legislation, new concerns regarding animal welfare and environmental protection, etc. It is for these reasons that veterinary curricula must be creative and flexible to be able to deliver veterinarians who are capable of addressing rapidly changing needs.
So, the question is: what other skills do future veterinarians need to possess? Besides being motivated and technically skilled, there is a whole range of characteristics they need to possess, including a wide variety of competencies extending from communication skills, technological fluency, problem solving capacities, systems thinking, the ability to search for interconnectivity, as well as empathy and rapport.
The introduction of new educational approaches such as the problem-solving techniques and the use of case studies in numerous veterinary faculties are contributing to the development of the above mentioned capacities and competencies. The use of Internet and modern multimedia provide unprecedented opportunities to develop new teaching materials and to provide a global outlook. Veterinary students engage with tutors and fellow students in new forms of interaction such as virtual classrooms, webinars, and chat/blog forums.
Veterinarians are expected to take a leadership role and to have a public health vision placing human/public health in harmony with animal health and human wellbeing without losing sight of cost-efficiencies and environmental protection, thus contributing with the skills and knowledge to a safer, prosperous, and interconnected world.
FAO is presently developing a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) project to enhance the knowledge and skills of veterinarians and other related professionals in the field of VPH. For more information, please contact Patrick.Otto@fao.org or Katinka.Debalogh@fao.org