MAY 24, 2010

General Adams, Colonel Huck, members of the U.S. Army Europe Regional Veterinary Command, esteemed colleagues and friends from around the world, I am honored to stand before you today as we explore together the challenges and opportunities associated with working collaboratively on disease surveillance in order to secure a safer world.

As I was pulling together some thoughts about this year's symposium theme, I remembered a line from American comic Steven Wright, who once quipped, "It's a small world …. But I wouldn't want to have to paint it."

It certainly is a small world, and it's getting smaller by the day. Even as our global population rises, our world shrinks. International travel by both people and animals from all corners of the world occurs every hour of every day, bringing people and animals into contact with each other and creating a complex ballet that must be choreographed very carefully.

While such rapid movement has greatly increased global trade and has helped build powerful economies in countries both large and small, it has also helped foster the spread of diseases, some of which are predictable – many of which are a surprise. We need look no further than the outbreak of novel 2009 H1N1 influenza.

As you recall, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the 2009 H1N1 flu virus contained genetic pieces from four different virus sources, which, as we all know, is quite unusual. The virus consists of North American swine influenza viruses, North American avian influenza viruses, human influenza viruses and swine influenza viruses found in both Asia and Europe.

First reported in early spring 2009 in central Mexico and the border states of California and Texas, 2009 H1N1 soon became a worldwide pandemic, forcing organizations such as yours and ours to respond.

I remember reading an op-ed piece in the New York Times authored by a professor of internal medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University, who said, "While the epidemic never became as deadly as we initially feared, it was not as mild as some experts now believe. What's more, it exposed some serious shortcomings in the world's public health response."

Health agencies around the world are still conducting post-mortems on how we responded to the H1N1 outbreak, and we are all still very concerned about the havoc such viruses wreak on developing countries with substandard health care and infrastructure. We're not sure if H1N1 will resurface in a more virulent form. And if it does, we're not sure where or when it will happen.

But one thing is certain. Whether it's H1N1 or rabies, when it comes to fighting animal and human disease, we all owe you – dedicated members of the veterinary corps – a debt of gratitude for focusing much of your work on the people and animals of these developing countries. For as Ronald Reagan once said, "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But the U.S. Armed Forces don't have that problem."

You have made a difference. And people around the world – whether here in European cities or in far-away villages thousands of miles away – who have benefited from your scientific expertise and selfless service will always remember the good things you have done for them.

In that spirit, I pledge – on behalf of the AVMA – that we will do our part in helping build strong veterinary services where they are needed most. While our name is the American Veterinary Medical Association, we are much, much more than that. In this changing world, we are committed to reaching across borders and oceans to help ensure that all nations are prepared to anticipate disease outbreak, to prevent disease outbreak and to respond to disease outbreak whenever and wherever it occurs.

Our world is indeed getting smaller. And now more than ever, the AVMA is working to protect the planet's animals, its environment and its people.

Up until a few years ago, the AVMA's primary role in international veterinary issues focused on the area of education. It was at that time, in spring 2007 to be exact, that the AVMA formed its committee on international veterinary affairs, signaling a new emphasis on – and a new commitment to – international veterinary issues.

We went from a passive role to an active role. We created a position called director of international affairs, a position that evolved from what was formerly a volunteer position of "globalization monitoring agent."

Today, our involvement is much broader, with not only an interest in international veterinary education, but also animal welfare and effective delivery of veterinary medicine in developing countries – like Afghanistan – and in places that are in the process of rebuilding – like Iraq. We have made a new commitment to form strategic alliances with others around the world who strive to bring animal, human and even environmental health to every corner of our delicate planet.

We are active within the OIE – the World Organization for Animal Health – a lead conductor on this international train, whose leaders are focusing in these same areas of transboundary diseases, animal welfare and international veterinary education. As part of the emphasis on education, AVMA is participating with OIE to establish minimum veterinary educational standards around the globe that would help ensure the health and welfare of all animals, most particularly those moving through our agricultural economies.

The AVMA is a proud partner in these efforts, because we believe the time has come for elevating veterinary education standards worldwide. We need to help each country – large or small, rich or poor – develop the resources needed to fight disease. Without such tools, these countries are lacking in their ability to keep their animals and their people safe. And, as you know, without these tools – and without a strategy, clear goals and excellent preparation – it is difficult, if not impossible, to succeed.

Now we are all familiar with the rigors associated with earning a veterinary degree in the United States, the countries of Europe and other parts of the developed world. We spent years learning the art and science of veterinary medicine under the tutelage and guidance of some of the most respected and knowledgeable professors in the world.

But as our world grows smaller – and as new zoonotic diseases continue to emerge – we need to take a look at veterinary education programs around the globe. We need to ensure that all veterinary graduates have the necessary knowledge base upon graduation.

The OIE played a critical role in this arena by hosting an international conference last year. AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven participated in that conference, and he continues to play a central role in helping establish these minimum standards. He is part of a working group of international thought leaders who will be meeting again this summer to further that effort along. They'll be focusing on answering several questions, including:

  • What should be the day-one competencies of every veterinary graduate – regardless of where they are?
  • What should the core curriculum look like?
  • What prerequisites do these students need before they enroll?

This education initiative is all about global health. Because the better educated veterinarians are around the world, the better they are able to take care of themselves, and the better they are able to improve animal health and care where they live, which ultimately helps protect all of us globally.

We are all in favor of creating these minimum veterinary educational standards. But at the same time, we want to assure you that the gold standard of a veterinary degree from an accredited U.S. veterinary school will be protected and preserved. These degrees are so highly valued that we will not – we cannot – lower that value.

We also cannot underestimate the value of strong international friendships with our peers. That's why the AVMA is building new bridges around the world with both established and fledgling veterinary associations.

Last October, the AVMA was present for the Chinese Veterinary Medical Association's inaugural seminar, an affair that the CEO of the Chinese VMA described as "a great, joyous event for Chinese veterinarians and a symbolic event in the history of the development of Chinese veterinary science." This partnership between the AVMA – one of the world's oldest veterinary associations – and the Chinese VMA – one of our youngest – is an important event for veterinary medicine across the globe.

The Chinese VMA is looking to improve veterinary education, animal care, public health and regulatory oversight of Chinese veterinarians. And they actively sought out our assistance. With that said, it is, quite simply, our duty to assist them.

Whether it's disease surveillance, food safety or public health, the principles we share are the same. The better countries are prepared and equipped to respond to disease within their own borders, the less vulnerable we all are. The best way to keep disease from spreading to where we live is to help developing countries deal with it in their own country. It helps them; it protects us.

The AVMA also has forged new relations with our veterinary friends in Afghanistan, where the Afghanistan Veterinary Association is making history as one of the first professional associations in the country.

By attending the AVA's first-ever national convention in 2007, to hosting the AVA president at our headquarters in 2009, the AVMA is forging bonds in one of the world's most delicate regions. It is this type of outreach that allows us to continue to build strong relationships around the world. These bonds are important, because even though we may be separated by distance, we are connected through a common cause.

Back at home, we are also looking at international issues from both an operational and an educational perspective.

If we are to throw our hat into the international veterinary ring, we better have someone who can help keep all our ducks in a row. That's why we created a position of staff coordinator for international affairs. This staff veterinarian is helping strengthen the AVMA's international partnerships by working with the OIE, the World Veterinary Association and other groups, and will serve as the staff consultant to the AVMA Committee on International Veterinary Affairs.

I am also quite proud of the fact that we are making our AVMA Global Animal Health Summit a regular highlight of our annual convention. We launched this day-long program in Seattle, Washington, in 2009, with the goal of expanding veterinarians' knowledge of the need for our involvement internationally. Veterinarians from around the world last year explored topics such as avian, swine and pandemic influenza; the growing significance of the one health approach to both animal and human medicine; and the critical importance of veterinary care for the developing world's livestock.

A highlight of the program was the appearance of Dr. Bernard Vallat, director general of the OIE, who emphasized the important links between animal health, food security and global health, particularly in this day of unprecedented movement of commodities and people.

We'll be hosting another Global Health Summit at this year's convention in Atlanta, Georgia, which is, coincidentally, my home state.

And I'd hazard to guess that in my state of Georgia, as well as from the rural practices in Big Lake, Alaska, to the urban clinics in Miami, Florida, there are many veterinarians who would pledge to serve internationally if they had the resources to determine where they might be needed.

That's why the AVMA is in preliminary discussions to develop a membership data base of those AVMA member veterinarians who have an interest and the expertise to serve internationally in times of need. It is our hope that we will be able to provide a network of veterinarians who, for example, speak Swahili and could respond to situations in, say, Kenya. We envision working with entities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S.A.I.D, and yes, the U.S. Army.

In closing, I'd like to take you back to the late 1960s, after I had completed my education at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and was serving a stint in the U.S. Air Force Veterinary Corps. I can still clearly remember participating in NATO war games over Turkey, riding up front in a C-130 and seeing the rear cargo doors of another transport in front of us open up in flight. I watched with wonder as tanks, jeeps and other implements parachuted to the ground.

It was an awesome sight that stays with me 40 years later.

What you are doing – the service you are providing, the sacrifices you are making for people all around the world – is equally impressive. And it reminds me of something Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

You embody his words through your service. And I sincerely thank you for all you have done – and all you continue to do for us all.

Thank you.