Public health is routinely affected by the interactions between people, animals and the environment. Recent lessons from the outbreaks of SARS, Avian Influenza and Monkey-Pox have highlighted the universal nature of infectious diseases and the pressing need for South Africa to integrate public and animal health surveillance, laboratory systems and epidemiology. And with the growing concerns over health security challenges posed by zoonotic diseases, bioterrorism and food and water-borne diseases, a stronger interaction between veterinary and human medicine has become more necessary than ever before. In fact, there is greater need to implement effective public health programs with more emphasis on smooth interaction of people, animals and animal products, preventing antimicrobial resistance by pathogens, reducing climate changes that affect people and animals, improving seamless interaction between the farms, wildlife and domestic livestock, and emphasizing national and global security.
Veterinarians as the Interface between Public, Animal and Environmental Health
Veterinarians are uniquely placed to play a critical role in disease control and enhanced national health. They operate at the interface between animal, human and environmental health and can easily recognize how the changes in land use, terrestrial and marine food production processes, and chemical and microbial pollution of water and land resources can threaten the health of both humans and animals. They work with farmers to design comprehensive animal health plans for preventing food contamination with pesticides, herbicides and veterinary medicinal products and minimizing the impacts of animal diseases on public health. And they provide timely counsel to farmers and producers of animal products on how to boost the safety and health of their products.
As the interface between public, animal and environmental health, veterinarians perform 3 important functions. Firstly, the vets guide farmers on proper use of medicines for every animal that falls sick. In this role, the vets ensure that farmers choose the right medicine to eradicate specific disorders and apply the medicines at the right dose. Similarly, the vets advise farmers to keep proper records of the drugs they use on their farms and on which individual animals they apply the drugs. With the help of these records, farmers can observe proper withdrawal periods and ensure that all animals sent to the slaughter have drug residues below the acceptable. Equally, the vets restrict the scope of antibiotics that farmers can use on their animals, preventing the development of antibiotic resistances.
The second role of veterinarians is concerned with animal feeds. Vets usually have immense interest in the food consumed by animals and are occupied with knowing whether the animals are feeding on incorrect or toxic materials. Usually, some toxins in the animal feeds can be passed to consumer products such as meat, milk or eggs, resulting in public health problems. For instance, heavy metals (such as mercury and lead), dioxins, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), salmonella, prions (causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy), and radionuclides are potential animal feed contaminants which can cause public health problems. Therefore, the vets usually identify and remove the sources of these contaminants and check animal products to ensure that any toxin levels meet international safety standards.
Thirdly, vets are experts in recognizing and treating animal and zoonotic diseases. Zoonoses are diseases affecting both humans and animals and are often marked with huge public health risks. If a vet suspects a zoonotic disease such as Tuberculosis (TB), he will move quickly to confirm the diagnosis and to control the outbreak of the disease. He will also take measures to ensure that the disease does not enter into the food chain through milk or meat.
Ways through Which Vets Promote Public Health Safety
- Food safety at the market level: The vets inspect animal food markets and examine animals for ill-health, contamination and poor welfare before being slaughtered. They also cleanse food markets thoroughly during “rest periods” to prevent spread of diseases from one farm to another and into the food chain.
- Food safety at slaughterhouse level: The vets identify animals that are not fit for human consumption and ensure they are not slaughtered for purposes of food production.
- Drug and chemical residue checks: Vets conduct additional chemical and drug checks on animals to safeguard public health. The checks look for growth promoters, antibiotics, hormones and chemicals that may legally or illegally be found in animal products. For instance, humans may suffer from muscle tremors, nervousness, rapid heart rate and other problems after eating meat containing Salbutamol or Clenbuterol chemicals, so the contaminants should be identified and removed.
- Assessing food production processes: Veterinarians involve in food processing by inspecting food factories and ensuring that the foods meet specific standards of safety and quality.
- Inspecting the handling of food in hotel and restaurant kitchens and at food service points: While most of this work is done by food hygienists and food inspectors, veterinary epidemiologists can help to track down and investigate cases of food poisoning involving animal products.
With the increases in agricultural products in South Africa, the number of agents causing food-borne diseases has been increasing, resulting in major public health risks. This calls for a new mix of professions and experts to help overcome the public health challenges. Indeed, by having veterinarians at the heart of dealing with meat and animal product hygiene, certifications and Zoonoses, South Africa can improve the overall quality and safety of food, resulting in better disease control and a healthier national community. Vets are trained in many disciplines, including bacteriology, toxicology, virology, immunology, risk assessment and public health, and are experienced in working with several animal species. Therefore, their knowledge and expertise in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention can vastly boost public health in South Africa.