AVMA President's Address CDC Vet Med Students Day

January 23, 2012

As veterinarians – and as private citizens – we rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to save lives, and to protect both people and animals.

The CDC just might rely on you someday to assist them in this most important of missions.

The CDC is an awesome agency, and – as I'm sure you've already recognized yourself – this is an awesome facility. A day at the CDC – your day at the CDC – is an opportunity for you to be among some of the brightest minds in the field while they conduct some of this nation's most significant public-health research.

Take advantage of this opportunity to broaden your horizons, expand your mind and ask questions. Your curiosity could very well lead you into a career in public health, and what a noble career it is.

Veterinarians working in public health have the wonderfully rewarding job of serving all creatures. We have seen tremendous advances made in the field of public health because of the many contributions veterinarians have made. Whether we're talking about zoonotic diseases, biosecurity, food safety or research, the list of achievements veterinarians have made in this field is long and noteworthy.

Take Dr. Peter Doherty, for example. Dr. Doherty, a veterinary researcher at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1996 for his revolutionary insight into the human immune system. His efforts have had a remarkable impact on autoimmune disease research, vaccine design, organ transplantation and the understanding of immune surveillance.

Veterinarians serve as epidemiologists in city, county, state and federal agencies investigating animal and human disease outbreaks, such as food-borne illnesses, influenza, rabies and West Nile virus.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Tracey McNamara, a former veterinary pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, was the first person to determine that zoo animals and wild birds were dying from the same disease that was infecting people in New York. Once the link between West Nile virus in animals and people was identified – thanks largely to Dr. McNamara's efforts – researchers began to look for ways of preventing and treating this potentially deadly disease.

Veterinarians also help ensure the safety of food-processing plants, restaurants and water supplies. Many serve in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Veterinarians working for the EPA study the effects of pesticides, industrial pollutants and other contaminants on animals and people.

At the FDA, veterinarians evaluate the safety and efficacy of medicines, medical products, pet foods and food additives. You'll also find many of us at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Institutes of Health and, of course, right here … at the CDC, protecting public health, investigating disease outbreaks throughout the world and developing programs to prevent the spread of diseases such as malaria, Ebola and avian influenza.

This is a stellar track record, isn't it? Where would we be without these talented doctors and the work they do? Unfortunately, we don't have enough of them. We need more veterinarians on the front lines of public health and epidemiology. Both sectors are experiencing great needs in attracting the brightest minds, and I'm certain that many of you could be a part of that group.

Critically important jobs in the public health and veterinary sectors are going unfilled. We face an uncertain future that may lack the experts we so badly need to protect both animal and human health.

Consider, that the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, the Department of the Army, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service all report difficulty in hiring enough veterinarians for work in public health-related fields. The Association of Schools of Public Health estimates that nearly one-quarter of the current workforce will be eligible for retirement this year, and some 250,000 additional public health workers will be needed in the coming decade.

The AVMA is working hard to educate its members, as well as aspiring veterinarians, about career opportunities in this field, and we know that those looking to fill these important positions are doing the same. With that said, however, I think it's safe to say that we all can do a better job of promoting the value and the importance of a veterinary career in public health.

These shortages threaten the nation's ability to conduct critical health promotion and disease prevention activities. These shortages are even more glaring when we consider how our global borders are blurring due to high-speed travel of people and animals.

Our shrinking world has helped propel us into a different way of thinking, toward a philosophy of One Health where human, animal and environmental issues intersect and interplay.

The AVMA is very much committed to the One Health concept. We are a founding member of the One Health Commission, which recently opened its first official headquarters at Iowa State University. The commission was established in 2007 under the leadership of then-AVMA President Dr. Roger Mahr, whose vision is to increase collaboration among those dedicated to animal, human and environmental health so that we all may live in a healthier, safer world.

Every year – since 1996 – the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society has presented the Karl F. Meyer/James H. Steele Gold Headed Cane Award at the AVMA Annual Convention.

This award recognizes and honors the achievements of an individual concerned with animal health who has significantly advanced human health through the practice of veterinary epidemiology and public health.

In 2011, Dr. Craig Carter and Dr. Alejandro Thiermann shared the award for their significant contributions to animal and human health.

Dr. Carter, director of the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, has been a leader in the development of novel epidemiological surveillance, outbreak cluster detection, decision support and laboratory information systems.

Dr. Thiermann is president of the Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Commission at the World Organization for Animal Health at its headquarters in Paris, France.

These highly respected veterinary experts have made an impact on how we live, where we live and how long we live. They are part of a proud and select group of Gold Headed Cane Award winners who have committed their careers to public health. If you decide to pursue a similar career, we would certainly love to add you to the list.

Thank you.