Controlling illness in animals is essential to keeping Americans healthy

Controlling illness in animals is essential to keeping Americans healthy
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From cancer-fighting superfoods, to miracle cures, health headlines are dominated by bumper-sticker solutions, many of which come with little scientific support.

So, it was encouraging to see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently confirm one proven, yet under-appreciated, way to protect our health: better control of animal illness.

When six out of 10 infectious diseases have their origins in animals, health authorities recognize that animal health is a public health issue. Keeping pets and livestock healthy protects people.

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More importantly, the CDC also embraced the concept of treating human, animal and environmental health as linked and tackling them together — a concept known as "One Health."

This means doctors working with veterinarians, researchers collaborating across disciplines and government agencies working side by side for better public health.

Such collaboration will be key to protecting people not only from existing animal diseases prioritized by the CDC, but from potential new health threats that could spread to the US from overseas.

But as a first step, we need to do more to incorporate animal health into public health. There are still opportunities to better protect ourselves through better animal health.

By encouraging more doctors and medical researchers to work with veterinary and environmental scientists as they do at the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research, we can consolidate our knowledge about the spread of disease between species.

For example, rabies can be prevented in people by vaccinating dogs and other carriers — something which can prove challenging among stray and wild animals. A One Health approach might include not only traditional vaccines for dogs but also an oral vaccine, distributed in the wild and made safe for both people and the environment. This would help protect more animals from rabies and prevent them from passing it on to people.

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Meanwhile, researchers at Kansas State University are also working on a vaccine against Rift Valley Fever, which has yet to reach the US but which can spread from mosquitos to livestock and from livestock to people. In the meantime, trials are under way in Kenya for a multi-species vaccine that protects livestock and people with the same formula.

Not only are One Health approaches and solutions effective in reducing the spread of disease between species, they are also more cost-effective than interventions that tackle health threats on a case by case basis.

We see this in rabies —one of the disease threats identified by CDC — where vaccinating animals against the disease is mere fraction of the cost of treatments in infected people. A rabies shot for dogs costs as little as $8 while treatment for rabies can cost up to $10,000.

Finally, the concept of One Health should be embedded within the health policies of national governments and public health agencies worldwide, as we have seen at the CDC, which cites One Health in its action plan for tackling antibiotic resistance.

This would help elevate the national importance of animal health and encourage greater public investment into research that benefits both animals and people.

It is essential that we find ways to proactively break down the barriers that separate human and veterinary medicine and environmental science, to tackle the threats that we jointly face. 

This will take a considerable amount of effort — it will not happen naturally. But those of us who are strong supporters of One Health need to make the case to convince all sides that there is strength in numbers and enormous benefits from pooling our knowledge and research.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is the executive director of HealthforAnimals, the global animal medicines association, which represents the nine largest animal medicines companies. He is the former director for agricultural biotechnology at EuropaBio, the European Association of Biotechnology Industries.