On the surface, veterinary medicine and public health seem to be completely different career paths. The links between the two, however, are not only strong, they also go back hundreds of years. Today, 21 billion animals feed the world population and many of the diseases grabbing the headlines – think West Nile virus, SARS, and Avian flu or H1N1 – originated in animals.
Three alumni are on the global frontlines of veterinary medicine and public health. One of them now refers to that degree as “the ticket to the dance.” It’s a dance that has taken each of them around the world and into the increasingly shared territory between the two fields.
“Public health only gets called to our attention when something goes wrong,” points out Ray Mobley (MPH EPI ‘80). Mobley is an associate professor and coordinator of animal science and research programs in the Florida A&M University animal-science department. A retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, he also serves as an extension veterinarian, providing education and training so that rural farmers can care better for their animals and livestock.
Every day, he points out, veterinarians are involved in maintaining a healthy food supply for the United States, in part by preventing emerging diseases from entering the country and in part through surveillance. They do this so successfully that few people think about this function.
He reports that all practitioners in the veterinary corps serve multiple functions: they maintain food safety for the troops (a task that includes assessing popular local eateries); they care for the service animals, such as the dogs who are part of their commands; and they manage common local animal-borne infections, such as rabies. Although these functions appear separate, they are historically tied together.
“During the Civil War veterinarians cared for the cavalry horses, of course, but at the same time, commanders were becoming aware that more men were dying from infection than on the battlefield, so veterinarians also were tasked with food safety,” explains Tami Zalewski (MPH&TM, ’98), a veterinary advisor in the U.S. Armed Forces.
A MODERN PACE
The expertise of veterinarians has wide-ranging implications, says alumnus Steve McLaughlin (MPH, ’98). McLaughlin spent 10 years with the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), combining both his veterinary and public health training in posts across the globe.
“If you look at what are the big emerging diseases that we’ve seen, almost every emerging disease has been zoonotic,” he points out. These headline grabbers have led to a sea change in the way that veterinarians view public health, and public health practitioners view veterinary scholarship.
“To the extent veterinary students thought about public health 20 years ago, we thought ‘That’s meat inspection,’” notes the 49-year-old McLaughlin. “Nowadays I talk to vet schools all over the country. They find out that I’ve got an MPH and a career in public health, and ask a lot of questions, because it’s very exciting. You can go anywhere.”
McLaughlin is founder of the Zuku Review, a website that helps veterinary students and practitioners prepare for board and licensing exams. He says he likes to include public health concepts in epidemiology or surveillance questions as part of his site’s daily challenge question.
“In the same way that I think a health department needs vets, I think vets need public health. Once you’ve got an MPH, that’s your ticket to the dance,” he says. Many veterinary training programs are offering combined DVM and MPH degrees, but McLaughlin says there is value in getting public health training from a school outside of the veterinary world.
“You need to spend time with MDs and PhDs, people from different fields,” he observes.
McLaughlin came to Tulane after two years with the Peace Corps in Ecuador where he served as an agricultural extension agent, teaching low-income famers in remote locations how to better care for their animals.
“They know what milk fever looks like and lice and so on, so what I ended up doing was teaching them to do their own vet work better. I would help people either start little businesses or be their own vets because they just don’t have access to veterinary care,” he explained. It was through his Peace Corps work that he learned about Tulane’s MPH program, which ultimately led to the EIS program with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working all over Africa and Southeast Asia.
“My first job was working on elephantitis in Haiti. To this day, Haiti remains one of the hardest places I’ve ever worked in my life,” he says, explaining that early on he began developing his strength in surveillance. “That led to a job on parasites, working in Angola. If you want to work in international stuff, you’re going to have to work in some tough places at first, so you build your ‘cred’ that way. They say, ‘He worked in Haiti, he worked in Angola, he can go anywhere.’ That led to India, Fiji for an outbreak, and so on.”
Now based in Decatur, Ga, he says he misses the international work sometimes, but travel is tiring. He is drawn to teaching and continuing to help veterinarians prepare for their exams and certifications, and improving the field in that capacity.
MILK AND MILITARY
If not for the downturn in milk prices, Lt. Col. Tami Zalewski might never have ended up laughing with a Sudanese mother under a shade tree. She credits her training in both public health and veterinary medicine with preparing her for a wide ranging career that has taken her across the world.
Zalewski’s educational and career path took some twists and turns before arriving at the combination of degrees, however. She first trained and worked as an engineer before going back to school to study veterinary medicine. Even then, international public health and military service weren’t initially on her radar.
“I had encountered an army vet working a sled dog race but I didn’t consider joining the army seriously until my senior year when the milk prices dropped . That affects how much the farmers call the vets, but my student loans did not drop,” she says. “I went into the army to have a stable income for a few years and I also had that sense of adventure.”
Zalewski’s career is a portrait of the dual roles that veterinarians have in public health service. She has traveled the world, partly with the Army and partly on loan in a public health capacity to groups like the World Health Organization. One of her treasured memories is of sharing a shade tree in the Sudan (where she was working on malnutrition surveillance) with a mother and her young sons. Although none of them shared a language, they ended up laughing together as Zalewski tried to write numbers in the local dialect for the boys.
“It’s amazing that our worlds could collide like that,” she recalls.
On the other side of the world, in a different year, she was part of a team deployed to Louisiana to help coordinate the healthcare for New Orleans animals rescued from the flood waters after Hurricane Katrina. There she put both her veterinary training and public health training to work, helping to coordinate the care and disbursement of thousands of animals, as well as donated food.
“My vet team was there to help treat the animals that were onsite because a lot of them were suffering with illness and injury,” recalls Zalewski. We were a split operation with “the other half of my team at Belle Chasse across the river to inspect any food that had been donated for relief efforts. We received food from all over the world so we had to make sure we could bring it into the country safely, then share it appropriately.”
Her public health training enables her to move easily between working on veterinary medicine issues and public health concerns, such as community-level disease surveillance.
“I think the whole basis for veterinary medicine is public health,” says the 48-year-old.
Mobley, whose career has touched on almost every aspect of public health and veterinary medicine, agrees. “I have bought into the one medicine concept,” he says.
Indeed, the increasing pace and intensity of emerging diseases in a global world forces public health, veterinary, and medical practitioners out of their silos and into a collaborative framework with one goal in mind: a healthier world community.