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November 01, 2020

Veterinarians could lead sustainability efforts

Disease prevention, plastic reduction help reduce environmental impact
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Veterinarians have a new patient to look after: the planet.

Dr. Jonna Mazet, executive director of the University of California-Davis One Health Institute and a professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said she got into wildlife veterinary medicine to save species.

“It is not just the animals we need to save, it is really ourselves,” Dr. Mazet said. “We need you, we need the veterinarians. You are leaders in your community; you are some of the most valued and respected scientific resources in your communities. … That trusted voice can help make science respected across our country and the globe so we can make preparations to keep the planet healthy.”

Illustration: Masked doctors standing atop the planet

Dr. Mazet spoke during the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020 session “On the Front Lines of the Environmental Crisis: Veterinarians Leading Change to Improve Planetary Health” on Aug. 21, which was about the COVID-19 pandemic, planetary health, and how veterinarians can build respect for science. This session and others were part of the annual Global Health Summit, which focused this year on environmental health and the veterinary profession.

“We are uniquely able to alter our environment,” Dr. Mazet said. “It is really human actions—on this Earth—that are causing the majority of all disturbances and changes to our ecosystem. We can’t just think about the problems. We need to think about the drivers of these problems, like land use, climate change, economic development, globalization, energy extraction and use, and migration. How do we live the lifestyles we want, stay healthy, and protect biodiversity?”

The planet’s vitals

Dr. Mazet said despite the veterinary community championing the one-health concept—that human, animal, and environmental health are intertwined—the environmental side has frequently been forgotten. Part of the reality right now is living in a pandemic, but the conversation must turn to the planet’s health, she said.

“If a few years from now, we are speaking again and we are only talking about SARS-CoV-2 and not about the planet’s health and how to keep the planet healthy so that we don’t get the next one (pandemic), I will be devastated. Please join me, help me,” Dr. Mazet said, adding that the world needs to be and can be ready for the next one.

“There are likely half a million zoonotic viruses that have not been discovered that can spill over and make us sick. We can know about those, and if we keep the planet healthier, we will experience less of those spillovers,” Dr. Mazet said. “This is not rocket science anymore. It is not that hard to do. It is completely accessible, and then we can stop these outbreaks at the source before they become pandemics.”

Dr. Mazet is the implementation director on the board of directors of the Global Virome Project, a program at the forefront of research, policy, and capacity building relating to emerging infectious diseases. She said the program is a big endeavor.

“We need to test every mammalian and bird species in the world to discover these viruses with zoonotic potential and inform strategies for better vaccine pipelines and better diagnostic pipelines, but also to inform communities of their risk and risky behavior,” Dr. Mazet said.

Her advice for veterinarians is to build respect for science itself to build political will.

“The scientists have been working together. It is the politics and the nationalistic behavior that is getting in our way now, and we need to break that down,” Dr. Mazet said. “This virus doesn’t know any borders, and it doesn’t know anything about politics, but it is lethal to all of us, and we are all at risk, and our family members are at risk, even if we are one of the lucky group—the majority that is asymptomatic. So, together we can make a difference, but we have to work together; we can’t just hope that things will change. We have to do everything we can, and I think veterinarians are the ones that can heal the planet and can convince their neighbors and communities to help do that.”

Plastic planet

A key solution to helping the planet is decreasing the amount of single-use plastic waste.

Dr. Karyn L. Bischoff, a veterinary diagnostic toxicologist at the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center who also teaches toxicology at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Danielle M. Scott, who has a master’s in environmental science and management and is a second-year student at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, spoke during the Aug. 21 session “Planet in Peril: The Plastic Crisis” at the Global Health Summit during the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020. The two discussed the problem with single-use plastics and how a veterinary practice could decrease its reliance on them.

“Plastics have become ubiquitous in our lives,” Dr. Bischoff said. “The sheer amount of plastic that is manufactured, used, and discarded yearly around the globe is not sustainable.”

More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and 50% of plastics are single use. Up to 13 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year.

“Though convenient, use-and-discard products and packaging are impacting the health of the planet, and we must take responsibility,” Dr. Bischoff said. “Plastic doesn’t die, it gets smaller and smaller.”

But what can a veterinarian do?

Scott said it is her goal to use her degrees to study the health impacts of climate change and plastics on wildlife populations.

“Plastic is here to stay,” Scott said. “It does come along with many societal benefits in health care, agriculture, and transportation. But we failed in our consumption, especially with packing(material), which is used briefly and then left for hundreds or thousands of years to break down. Can we stand by while this happens?”

Scott suggests a veterinary practice implement the following actions to start reducing plastic waste:

  • Reach out to the local municipality to find out what is accepted in the recycling bin.
  • Perform a trash audit to see how much and what kind of waste the practice is producing.
  • Identify items within the clinic that can be directed away from landfills, such as by composting paper towels.
  • Consider reducing items by, for example, replacing paper towels with rags.
  • Ensure recyclable items don’t end up in the trash by placing several recycling bins throughout the clinic.
  • Look into such programs as TerraCycle, a recycling platform that takes hard-to-recycle items such as examination gloves, vials, and plastic syringe caps for a fee.
  • Encourage staff members to get involved and practice zero waste within their daily lives by bringing reusable water bottles to work.
  • Convert all paper files to electronic, and consider paperless billing methods.
  • Appoint a practicewide sustainability coordinator to promote and manage the work.

“Whether you are a business, an individual, a group, change must come from every level, and it should have started yesterday,” Scott said. “It is up to everyone to reverse the trajectory. Be a voice and advocate for our planet. We only have one.”

Rising disease risk

As the human population increases and expands deeper into wild territory, those incursions risk more disease emergence, according to John L. Gittleman, PhD, dean of the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia and the opening lecturer at the summit. He studies disease patterns, extinction rates, and ties between economics and conservation.

His own studies have shown rising numbers of infectious disease outbreaks, he said, citing a 2008 article he co-authored that described the origin of 335 emerging infectious diseases from 1940-2004.

Global outbreaks often have links with human-source changes in environments, such as pollution, development, or war, Dr. Gittleman said. But the causes can be multiple and complex.

“More and more, we need to be thinking about research in integrative, collaborative ways, as one health emphasizes, to expand data collection—but the right kind of data,” he said. “We need to focus more on specific taxa that are more likely to give rise to infectious diseases.”

Dr. Simon Doherty, senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association, sees links between sustainability and better health for humans, animals, and environments.

In clinical application, he said, sustainability entails avoiding overuse of broad-spectrum antimicrobials and eliminating tail docking and beak trimming. “Challenging ourselves around less and better,” Dr. Doherty said. In an educator’s role, sustainability entails teaching farmers how to manage their land to promote biodiversity or teaching the public that cat and dog foods can reduce waste by using protein unappealing to people.

Dr. Doherty is the director of Vet Sustain, a United Kingdom–based organization founded in 2019 with goals that include reducing waste linked to veterinary practice, safeguarding human health and well-being, and promoting water quality and conservation.

He also recommends farm veterinarians add preventive medicine, herd health planning, and routine visits to their services if they haven’t already. And he thinks small animal veterinarians can reduce pollution when they understand the ecological risks of their products and ensure clients know, for example, how soon after application of those products their dog can go for a swim.

Dr. Doherty sees potential that veterinarians can promote sustainability by caring for themselves and their co-workers.

“If we can actually improve the workplace—promote sustainable lifestyles, promote good work-life balance, and promote good physical health and good mental health—hopefully, in time, we will also be able to improve the resilience and the retention of vets within the profession as well,” he said.


Harms of plastics

According to the presentation “Planet in Peril: The Plastic Crisis” at the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020, the harms of plastic include the following:

  • Physical harm.
    • Entanglement.
    • Ingestion.
  • Transport of chemical pollutants.
    • Additives: bisphenol A, phthalates.
    • Pickup of pollutants: persistent organic pollutants, metals.
  • Transport of biota.
    • Biofilms: Vibrio species.
    • Animals.