Managing global infectious disease threats
The Role of the Veterinary Community
© 2015 FrontLine Security (Vol 10, No 3)

The health of a country’s animal population – including livestock, companion animals and wildlife – represents a critical link in supporting public health, healthy ecosystems, economic well-being and the safety and security of the population. Recent trends in globalization of trade and travel, environmental disturbances, political instability and climate change create opportunities for the emergence and spread of disease from animals to humans. Veterinarians work on the interface between humans and animals and therefore play a major role in mitigating such disease threats. Consequently, the world veterinary community must be engaged as a key partner with public health and safety and security sectors to protect vulnerable human populations and safeguard the food supply. 

Infectious Disease Threats around the Globe
Over the centuries, human and animal health have been challenged by outbreaks of infectious diseases. Though major technological advances have improved our ability to prevent, detect and control disease, we are still faced with significant threats from often highly contagious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and other highly adaptable agents. 

What may be surprising to many, is that about 75 % of new, emerging diseases of animals, including those with pandemic and/or bio-terrorism potential, can infect humans. Many such diseases (collectively referred to as “zoonoses”) have emerged in distant parts of the world, sometimes as a result of humans interfacing in new ways with wildlife and domestic livestock populations and their associated disease agents. Others have appeared much closer to home or have found their way to our doorstep as result of factors such as international travel and trade, movement of wildlife, smuggling, genetic change among disease agents and indirect effects of climate change – for example, changing insect and tick populations allowing for the spread of certain agents in new regions. 

Recent examples of diseases that have had direct or indirect impact on the health of Canadians and the economy have included West Nile Virus (WNV) in the 1990s, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, influenza A virus (pH1N1) in pigs in 2009, several outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in domestic poultry over the past decade, and Lyme disease that is spread by ticks and whose range is expanding in North America. 

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE)

  • 60% of human pathogens are of animal origin.
  • 75% of emerging animal 
  • diseases can be transmitted 
  • to humans.
  • 1 emerging disease occurs every 8 months.
  • Many of these disease-causing agents have the potential to be used as agents for bioterrorism.

Recently, the outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa has driven home the point that agents originating from animals, as Ebola did, can spread to humans and now quickly across oceans or continents and, at the very least, provoke fear and uncertainty among large portions of the population, and at worst, can result in death, disability, civil disruption and displacement of citizens.

Some disease agents do not affect people, such as the virus that causes ‘foot and mouth’, but outbreaks can have devastating consequences for food production, tourism, trade and the economy – as was the case in the 2001 outbreak in the UK which resulted in over 10B Euro in damage, animal suffering and untold mental anguish to citizens who lost their livelihoods. So far, while Canada has suffered some negative consequences from disease outbreaks in animals, it has largely been spared catastrophic impacts that can result from natural, accidental or intentional introduction of infectious agents. Nevertheless the potential for serious outbreaks of disease remains, and constant vigilance is required.

The Global Community
The standards of the World Organization for Animal Health ( are recognized by the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the reference for international sanitary rules. They are prepared by elected commissions and working groups that bring together internationally renowned scientists – most of whom are experts within the global network of about 300 Collaborating Centres and Reference Laboratories. As one of the world’s major producers and exporters of animals and animal products (e.g. meat, genetic material, etc.) amounting to tens of billions of dollars annually, Canada has strived to be an active member and contributor to OIE in areas of scientific knowledge and animal disease information sharing, food safety and animal welfare and promotion of veterinary services globally. Canada recognizes that the global animal health system must be kept strong to protect all players. 

With respect to global public health, the OIE has developed a strategic alliance with the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, recognizing their respective responsibilities in fighting diseases (including zoonoses) that can have serious health and economic impacts. These organizations have been working together for many years to prevent, detect, control and eliminate disease risks to humans originating directly or indirectly from animals.

Canadian veterinarians in government, universities and the private sector are linked to the OIE and the global community through Canada’s OIE Delegate and Canada’s Chief Veterinary Officer, both located at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

As evidence of international interest in the potential risk posed by disease agents in the current environment, OIE hosted the first Global Conference on Biological Threat Reduction in Paris on 2 July 2015. Key messages included the importance of the animal health, human health, and national security sectors working closely together to use internationally adopted standards are the basis for global infectious disease prevention and control, including early detection and rapid response to biological events whether they be of natural, accidental or intentional origin.

Canada’s Veterinary Community
Though the public most frequently associates veterinarians with companion animal practice, members of the veterinary profession and associated experts, such as veterinary technologists and technicians, occupy positions across the animal and public health domains in Canada. Private sector veterinarians work with food animal producers on the front line to support health and welfare of livestock to protect the food supply and international trade. Along with producers, they are mostly likely to be first on the scene or the first to be consulted in the event of a foreign animal disease incursion. Likewise, veterinarians in federal and provincial governments and associated laboratories conduct animal and zoonotic disease surveillance, diagnostic testing and research; formulate risk assessments and conduct epidemiological studies, surveys and analyses; and develop import and disease control policies supported by science and international. Other veterinarians work in industry and universities to support the development of new technologies and tools, such as vaccines and pharmaceuticals and to apply new scientific knowledge to enhance the management of disease risk.

Canada is fortunate to have a world class laboratory facility that puts animal and human disease diagnostics and research under one roof. Constructed in Winnipeg during the 1990s, the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (CSCHAH) facility allows Canadian and international scientists in CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to collaborate on diverse high threat disease agents such as Ebola virus, influenza, and Nipah virus, to name a few. 

Veterinarians and other government scientists at CSCHAH have collaborated extensively during the past 15 years with the Department of National Defence (DND) on research in areas such as the development of rapid diagnostic tests for exotic animal diseases, development of public health and animal health intelligence and surveillance networks, and foresight studies on strengthening the animal health emergency management system. In addition, both table top and field exercises, such as the 2007 Biological Incident Exercise West (Bi-Ex West), have been organized by DND to enhance the capability of organizations such as CFIA, PHAC, DND, RCMP, Public Safety Canada and provincial and local agencies to work collaboratively to respond to bioterrorist events, situation involving a zoonotic agent or disease transmitted from animals to humans. Bi-Ex West enabled participants to strengthen their skills, improve procedures, and identify vulnerabilities. It tested the preparedness of federal experts and their ability to work with other levels of government and emergency responders. It contributed to improving national capabilities to respond to bioterrorism threats.

Given the potential for a rapid disease incursion, day-to-day preparedness is crucial to mitigate risk and minimize damage. Veterinarians are core members of inter-disciplinary emergency teams that exist in government agencies at all levels, with mandates for management of disease outbreaks. More broadly, since 2006, hundreds of Canadian veterinarians have stepped forward as volunteers to be trained the Canadian Veterinary Reserve Program (CVR) to assist federal, provincial and territorial governments in responding to large-scale emergencies in Canada affecting large numbers of animals. The CVR, which is coordinated by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and supported by the CFIA, allows veterinarians to make themselves available to rapidly assist governments in responding to outbreaks of foreign animal disease and other large-scale emergencies and disasters that affect animals.

The Way Forward 
Animal health and welfare is key to all dimensions of health and security – Animal, Public, Economic, Ecosystem, Food Security. There is increasing awareness and action at the international level to strengthen alliances between animal and human health and security communities to reduce threats posed by infectious diseases. In the past, Canada has suffered from devastating losses due to infectious diseases originating in animals, however, catastrophic impacts have not, as yet resulted from animal disease outbreaks s they have in some other countries. With a new government in place, and an energetic Minister at the helm of Public Safety, now is the time for Canada to invest in emergency preparedness, strengthen expertise and provide tools to those on the frontline who are tasked with protecting Canadians from zoonotic disease threat – Canada’s veterinarians. 

Dr. Shane Renwick is Manager of National Issues & Animal Welfare at the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association in Ottawa.

© FrontLine Security 2015