What Can Veterinarians Do for Human Health?
Veterinary medicine is a public health profession. I’ll be the first to admit that it took a long time for me to come to this realization. Although I have (pretty much) always wanted to be a veterinarian, the focus throughout the greater portion of my life was on animal health. I wanted to save peoples sick pets, and offer them a kind euthanasia (“good death,” in Greek) if they were beyond saving. It wasn’t that I didn’t like people, it was that I felt the need to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves- had I decided to go into human medicine, I likely would have gone into pediatrics for the same reason!
Throughout my undergraduate and now professional education, my idea of what it means to be a veterinarian has been constantly evolving. A pivotal moment for me was when I first learned the veterinary oath that I will be taking upon graduation and licensure as a veterinarian. It states (emphasis is mine):
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.
I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
I was, along with many of my classmates, surprised to see how prominent human health was in our oath. I had already been coming to the realization that veterinarians could have a huge impact on public health, but to see it specifically mentioned in the oath that I would be taking in just a few years was a somewhat revolutionary notion. I am sure that some of my classmates were disappointed by this emphasis on human wellbeing, but I don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing.
The fact is humans rule this planet. For better or for worse, we’re in control, and therefore any major shifts in ideology or policy need to have tangible benefits for humans. As much as I’d love to be able to advocate saving animals (and their ecosystems) for the sake of the animals, it’s just not reasonable to expect everyone to feel the same way, and more meaningful and sustainable gains can be made by making conservation beneficial for those involved.
And in this regard, veterinarians are well equipped to help.
When we ask a village to stop hunting endangered species, wouldn’t it be better if we could teach them how to raise domestic livestock to fulfill their protein requirements? When there is an outbreak of a zoonotic disease (such as the current Ebola outbreak that is ravaging West Africa, as well as our television screens in the USA), wouldn’t we be better off if we had someone monitoring the health of the wild (or domestic) reservoir species to help predict future outbreaks?
Now, I’m not saying veterinarians have all of the answers. However, by encouraging interdisciplinary work, and stressing the intrinsic links between animal and human health, I do believe that we can vastly improve our problem-solving capacities.
I once heard a proverb, “If all you have is a hammer, all of your problems start to look like nails.” Maybe we (as conservationists) need to expand our toolbox so that we can approach each problem with the necessary equipment, and come up with lasting, sustainable solutions that will benefit all of the species that call this great planet home.