Veterinarians: Warriors in the battle against disease

Don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Even though the World Health Organization recently declared that the Zika virus is no longer a global health emergency, other diseases are growing more threatening each day. 

Consider leptospirosis, a bacterial disease transmitted through infected animal urine that claimed dozens of human lives in the Caribbean in 2016., or cysticercosis, a disease contracted from the pork tapeworm, Taenia solium, that causes hundreds of thousands of people to suffer seizures. 

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It's no coincidence that these diseases are transmitted by animals -- nearly 60 percent of all human diseases are. Such illnesses kill over two million people each year.  

Who's manning the front lines against these diseases? Increasingly, veterinarians. Today's veterinarians aren't merely tasked with giving Fido his shots -- they're asked to serve as public-health warriors, leading the attack against such diseases. The lives and livelihoods of millions of people depend on them receiving the proper training.

Mosquitos have borne deadly diseases for generations. Dengue fever affects up to 400 million people annually.  Malaria strikes another 200 million.  

But the blood-sucking pests aren't the only source of threats. Dogs transmit 99 percent of rabies. Without prompt treatment, the disease is nearly always fatal for people.  

Animal-borne diseases can also infect local economies. Take the Zika virus, which causes birth defects in babies. The latest outbreak hit over 61 countries.  As the virus spread, tourism in affected areas dropped precipitously. 

Consider Miami's $24 billion tourism industry. Because of Zika, the price of plane tickets to Miami dropped 17 percent in August, a sign of depressed demand. One local restaurant owner reported losing 70 percent of his customers.  

Likewise, airlines slashed ticket prices to Latin American countries by over 20 percent after governments issued Zika travel advisories. 

The medical and veterinary communities increasingly recognize that the health and well-being of animals, humans, and the environment are inextricably linked -- a concept known as "One Health."  Veterinary schools are at the forefront in training their students to tackle these "one health" crises. 

The University of California, Davis' veterinary-medical program has developed technology to track the migration patterns of birds potentially infected with avian flu, in order to contain outbreaks.  In 2015, one such outbreak killed 48 million birds and cost the nation over $3 billion.  If the virus mutates to infect humans, the consequences could be disastrous.

In addition to on-the-ground leptospirosis and cysticercosis monitoring, my institution, the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, is researching newly emerging livestock-associated antibiotic-resistant staph infections that could potentially transfer to pet and human populations. Currently, little data is available on the infections, despite growing global concern over antimicrobial resistance. Our researchers hope to better understand the disease's origin and spread in order to estimate its risk for both animal and human health.  That knowledge could save lives and bolster food security around the globe.

Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been investigating how mosquitoes' brains work. Veterinary researchers hope to identify the chemical factors that attract mosquitos to humans -- in order to create ultra-effective traps to kill the insects. 

That's only one front in the mosquito wars. Johns Hopkins and Ross have formed a partnership enabling students to pursue interdisciplinary studies in the veterinary and public health fields at both institutions. Students will benefit from Ross's Caribbean location -- the epicenter of many mosquito-transmitted viruses. 

The health of our ecosystems requires harmony between human health, animal heath, and a healthy environment. Veterinarians play a pivotal role in the defense against animal-borne diseases that threaten our physical and financial health. It's up to veterinary schools to equip their students to think outside the box for this battle.   

Dr. Arve Lee Willingham BSc DVM PhD is Associate Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies and Professor of One Health at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.