Veterinarians take an oath to: “use scientific knowledge and skills through protection of animal health, relief of animal suffering, conservation of animal resources, promotion of animal health and advancement of medical knowledge,” says Will Hueston of the University of Minnesota (UMN). In essence, that means veterinarians take an oath to promote public health, says the director of UMN's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

By and large, however, Hueston says veterinarians have been the missing player on the public-health team. His mission is to develop programs to help practitioners and other agricultural professionals become comfortable working in both production agriculture and in the food system.

“We're trying to give veterinary students the opportunity to earn public health credentials — called a Veterinary Public Health (VPH) program — at the same time they are getting their animal health credentials,” Hueston says.

Touching both worlds

The past few years, a range of diseases and public health challenges have emerged — from BSE and chronic wasting diseases to monkey pox, West Nile Virus and SAARS, Hueston says. The ability to respond quickly and effectively must be maintained, he adds. That's where public health-trained veterinarians come into play.

“As veterinarians become more effective and willing to work at the interface between animal and public health, we'll be able to more effectively deal with new emerging diseases or with public anxiety and concern about existing diseases,” he adds.

Created in November 2002, VPH is a distance-education program; most courses are available over the Internet. During the summer, students participate in the Public Health Institute — a three-week, intensive session offering more than 40 courses covering a wide variety of topics. The program's first three graduates finished this summer.

“VPH's goal is to provide candidates a better understanding of the food system,” Hueston adds.

Because the courses are primarily Internet-based, he says the VPH program is available to veterinary students attending any accredited veterinary college.

“This year, we have 75 veterinary students working on an VPH at the same time they're earning their DVM degree,” Hueston says.

Students hail from seven veterinary colleges: UMN, Kansas State University, Iowa State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, Cornell University, and Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Mid-career professionals

The center also has begun offering similar curricula to mid-career veterinarians interested in career opportunities through UMN's Executive Program in Public Health Practice degree program.

“It gives professionals in the middle of their careers — whether nutritionists, veterinarians, or sanitary or quality control managers — the opportunity to come back to school,” Hueston says.

The program's format is similar to the VPH in that the majority of courses are available on the Internet. And, like the VPH, a three-week intensive summer session on the UMN campus is also required.

“Like the VPH, the executive program for mid-career professionals also provides participants an opportunity to develop a network with individuals working in a whole range of areas in the food system,” he adds.

Career opportunities

Hueston says the additional training expands career possibilities for veterinary professionals. Some examples include working in government agencies and disease-control centers, such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service, or Food and Drug Administration.

“One participant was just promoted in his company to the director of animal health and food safety,” Hueston says.

“Food companies are increasingly recognizing they need employees with a broader understanding of not only animal diseases and animal production, but the human health aspect,” he adds. “Working across that boundary, they connect animal health to human health.”

Integrating animal & human health

The University of Minnesota's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety was formed in 2001. Its mission is to look at production agriculture and its relationship to human health.

“It's a university center that pulls together faculty from multiple disciplines and multiple colleges to focus on issues relating to animal health and food safety,” says Will Hueston, center director.

Hueston says the center seeks to enhance the nation's ability to respond to new issues. Its focus is on four major areas.

  • To integrate basic research and applied research. “How do we translate new scientific findings into something we can take to the field to benefit producers and the cattle they raise?” Hueston asks.

  • Strategies to improve or enhance surveillance techniques. “The mission is to measure our ability to detect new diseases as they emerge and track existing diseases, to measure the effectiveness of our controls, and to integrate animal and human surveillance,” Hueston adds.

  • A three-pronged risk analysis — risk assessment, risk-management strategies and risk communication. “We provide advice and recommendations to government agencies, industries and others on managing or minimizing risk,” Hueston explains. “Our job is to figure out how to engage all the potentially affected publics in the process of identifying risks and managing them.”

  • Educational programming. “We saw a huge need to develop a new generation of professionals comfortable working in both production agriculture and in the food system,” Hueston says.
    Stephanie Veldman