Six out of 10 infectious diseases in people today are zoonotic based, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zoonotic diseases, also called zoonoses, are caused by harmful germs like viruses, bacterial, parasites, and fungi that can spread between animals and people.
Physicians are actively addressing the issue of zoonoses today, with the coronavirus pandemic a case in point. But one unexpected professional who’s actively involved that you might not have thought about is your veterinarian.
“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,” explains Audrey Ruple, DVM and assistant professor of One Health epidemiology, Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences.
As part of a strategic, targeted approach to control and prevent zoonotic diseases, the One Health Office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been hosting Zoonotic Disease Prioritization Workshops in several countries, including the U.S. Here are the top 8 zoonotic diseases workshop participants identified for the U.S. in 2019, prior to COVID-19.
1. Zoonotic influenza (zoonotic influenza A viruses)
2. Salmonellosis (Salmonella species)
3. West Nile virus (Flaviviridae, Flavivirus)
4. Plague (Yersinia pestis)
5. Emerging coronaviruses (Coronaviridae; ie, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome)
6. Rabies (Rhabdoviridae, Lyssavirus)
7. Brucellosis (Brucella species)
8. Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi)
The disease ranked as the highest priority by all workshop participants was zoonotic influenza A, which swine veterinarians, physicians and producers can play a significant role in preventing cooperatively.
Ruple says the prevalence of zoonoses points to a need for veterinarians and physicians 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 veterinarians can bring a lot to the table,” she says.
Many physicians agree. Ruple cites research conducted in northeast Ohio in 2006 showing, 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 been her experience. “My own veterinarian was helpful answering questions about my cat and toxoplasmosis concerns when I was pregnant,” says DeLaMora, who works at the Phyllis and David Komansky Children’s Hospital at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
The most unique zoonotic disease concern she has addressed involved a Madagascar monkey that bit a student on spring break. DeLaMora talked 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 student’s parents.
DeLaMora says a more common scenario when she collaborates with veterinarians is when she encounters potential lyme disease caused by blacklegged ticks carried into the home by a pet.
Veterinarians who diagnose an animal with a zoonotic disease, whether in the clinic or on the farm, can offer valuable education for the owner, says Danelle Bickett-Weddle, DVM and associate director for the Center for Food Security and Public Health at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Veterinarians understand the health risks associated with zoonotic and animal-only infectious diseases,” she says. “Educating people on practical, easily implemented steps to protect themselves is an important professional task.”
Likewise, the general population needs a better understanding of zoonoses, especially when a pet or farm animal is diagnosed with one, Ruple notes.
“We need to explain to people that this could affect them or a loved one, especially immunocompromised individuals,” she says.
Ruple adds that she anticipates seeing more veterinarian-physician collaboration in the future, as estimates indicate up to 75% of emerging infectious diseases in human populations will be zoonotic.