Concern about emerging animal-borne diseases that can affect humans, such as avian flu and mad cow disease, and the shortage of veterinarians available to deal with them has the American Veterinary Medical Association and Congress looking to bring more vets into the public health sector.
“Veterinarians play a key role in protecting the health of our nation,” said Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, who worked as a rural area veterinarian for 20 years. He is a sponsor of a bill designed to introduce more vets into bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, environmental health, food safety, and biomedical research.
The proposed Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act is a bipartisan measure that would provide $1.5 billion during the next decade to expand the size of American veterinary schools and increase expertise in public health and biomedical research.
Data provided by AVMA show there were nearly 64,000 board-certified veterinarians last year, but of those only 1,500 were in public health practice and 50 percent of the veterinarians employed by the U.S. Public Health Service are eligible for retirement.
Robert Nichols, assistant director of government relations for AVMA, said the American Association of Veterinary Colleges is helping to recruit and train more veterinarians in public health with the goal of training another 400 to 500 vets annually.
Mr. Nichols said fewer veterinarians are going into public health as before. “One of the reasons is that there is so much demand for them in private practice,” given all the U.S. households with pets, he said.
“Veterinarians are on the front lines for those diseases that spread from animals to humans,” Mr. Nichols said. So identifying and understanding diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, West Nile virus and monkeypox may depend on investigators who understand more than just the human body, he said.
“This is all very pertinent to (improving) homeland security,” Mr. Allard said, given the threats posed if terrorists were to use anthrax or bubonic plague, which can spread from animals to humans, as biological weapons.
As a veterinarian, Mr. Allard said he battled outbreaks of Western equine encephalitis in horses. This deadly condition can be spread to humans through mosquito bites.
The AVMA points out that it was a veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo, who in 1991, linked the appearance of dead crows lying around with reports of sick and dying humans in New York and concluded all were victims of the West Nile virus.
Mr. Allard pointed out that the need for more veterinarians will not abate. While a total of 2,500 students now graduate yearly from America’s veterinary colleges, he said the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts “there will be more than 28,000 openings for veterinarians by the year 2012.”