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InFocus

Educating clients: a crucial role for the profession

KEY steps in the process of tackling global public health issues can be made across the floor of a veterinary practice consulting room, according to Dr Rene Carlson, president of the World Veterinary Association.

Speaking at the BVA congress, he argued that general practitioners can play a crucial role in shaping clients’ understanding of major public health issues, such as antimicrobial resistance and global food security.

She said it was part of a veterinarian’s responsibilities to address the misunderstandings highlighted in a recently published World Health Organisation study about the factors causing antimicrobial resistance and the strategies needed to control the problem.

In that study, 10,000 people in 12 countries were questioned and 76% believed that it was the human patient, rather than the disease pathogens, that develop resistance to the antimicrobial drugs. There was a similar inability to distinguish between bacteria and viruses, together with a misconception about the efficacy of antibiotics against the latter.

While the information offered to a client should reflect the level of understanding shown by that person, the overall message should be as simple as possible: “The bugs are getting stronger, the medicines are getting weaker and if that continues, you could die,” she said.

Dr Carlson agreed with the view expressed from the floor that farm animal practitioners have been unfairly accused of bearing the main responsibility for the development of resistant bacteria.

She felt that there is a newly-found willingness for the medical and veterinary professions to stop pointing fingers at each other and work together in preventing the problem getting worse. Moreover, this One Health approach to tackling shared challenges should also embrace other groups such as plant scientists, as they were facing similar issues with fungicide resistant disease agents emerging in food crops.

One of the crucial challenges for veterinarians is to carry out studies to fill the “frightening gap” in our own understanding of the risks of transferring antimicrobial resistant strains between humans and companion animals.

“Pets are allowed to sleep on our beds and share our food and so they could potentially provide a huge reservoir of infection for their owners,” she said.

Making better use of the available tools for controlling disease should also extend to biological agents. Dr Carlson said that a major resurgence in childhood measles in her own country, the United States, reflected the continuing misgivings among parents about vaccine safety and its claimed link with autism.

She said that veterinarians can help their public health colleagues by using every opportunity to explain the science behind vaccination to their clients and to reassure them about the protection afforded by such treatment.

As well as educating clients about global health challenges, veterinarians will play a central role in tackling perhaps the biggest problem of all: how to feed a growing world population with an increasing appetite for animal protein. Dr Carlson felt it was unrealistic to think that this demand could be met without further intensification of the systems used to raise pigs and poultry.

“It is not pretty, we may not like it but it is our responsibility to make it possible, humane and safe. We have to ensure that there is good management to prevent poor health, avoid excessive use of medicines and reduce costs.”

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