Every time you go to the grocery store, a restaurant, or school cafeteria, you can trust that you are eating safe food thanks to the dedicated staff at the state diagnostic laboratories. These scientists are responsible for disease surveillance, testing, and regulation of livestock, poultry, wildlife, and even honey bees. Dr. Frazier and his staff test and monitor domestic and wild animals for emerging and foreign diseases as well as diseases that can be passed from animals to humans: zoonotic diseases. The Alabama State Diagnostic Laboratory collaborates with the Alabama Department of Public Health on the surveillance of zoonotic disease. Human health and animal health interface on a daily basis as people interact with family pets, farmers interact with livestock, and feral animals cross human paths in urban, suburban, and rural areas. To assure that humans are healthy, the animals that share our environment must be healthy and visa versa. The term “One Health” encompasses the collaboration, cooperation, and communication between veterinary scientists and public health professionals to maintain a strong and thriving environment.
Our Wednesday began outside the Alabama Animal Diagnostic Laboratory were we had a spontaneous conversation with Dr. Tony Frazier, the state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture and Industries. Cloaked within his humorous banter were some powerful truths: “A country that has lots of food has a lot of problems. A country that has no food has but one problem. Agriculture touches everyone’s life. Food and food safety is important for everyone” As public health students, we don’t often think about how agriculture intersects with our work. We weren’t sure what we’d learn and what we’d see inside the lab. We were in for quite a surprise!
In the pictures below you can see us suited up in personal protective equipment before we entered the part of the diagnostic lab that houses the “Digester”, a large piece of equipment used to safely dispose of animal tissue and bone after its been necropsied and tested. This disposal procedure prevents the spread of harmful zoonotic diseases.
But it wasn’t all fun and dress-up games for the UAB Trailblazers. Dr. Frazier opened our eyes to the various avenues in which human health depends on animal health and visa versa. Did you know that Alabama has an enormous industry? We didn’t! And since the southeast is prone to hurricanes and tornadoes, the state has emergency preparedness protocols in place to assist when farmers suffer loss in the case of a natural disaster, or should a deadly disease be introduced to a chicken house. We learned from Dr. Heather Waltz, Director of Animal Diagnostic Lab, that part of the lab’s role is to monitor livestock populations at several points before they go to be “processed” and eventually sold in supermarkets. The lab runs thousands of tests on behalf of producers and consumers. Dr. Kelly Steury, DVM, MPH, Diagnostician and a recent alum of the SOPH spoke about emerging zoonotic diseases, including bovine sponginess encephalitic (mad cow disease), and the convergence of animal and human health.
As students of public health we keep finding we also must be students of history. Dr. Stephanie Ostrowski, Associate Professor of Public Health at the Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, detailed what could be considered the worst epidemic in history, although it’s not well documented: the Rinderpest plague of the late 19th century. The virus is structurally similar to measles, but can’t be transferred from animals to humans. In 1884, cattle imports introduced rinderpest, a virus known as the cattle plague, into Ethiopian herds of cattle and oxen. One hundred percent of cattle exposed to rinderpest contract the disease and more than 99% of infected cattle die of the disease. This epizootic event in Ethiopia annihilated livestock leading to the Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892. Around 30% of Ethiopia’s population starved or died from other consequences of rinderpest. It spread from Ethiopia to other parts of the African continent, destroying livelihoods and causing economic disenfranchisement along the way. This likely made it much easier for colonists to continue to invade and oppress African people. During the 20th century, rinderpest was eradicated throughout the world by vaccinating cattle herds. However, much can be learned from the events and impacts of the rinderpest disaster of the 19th century. Most of us were unaware that this had even taken place. This historical tragedy highlights the connection between human health and animals, even when the disease itself can’t be transferred from animal to human.
Our day transitioned into a tour of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine’s (AVM) state of the art facility that focuses on the prevention of many diseases and conducts comparative medicine research. While at the AVM, Dr. Jim Wright, Professor at AVM, discussed how vital controlling rabies is for population health because infection in humans almost always results in death. We learned that the Alabama Department of Public Health is at the fore front for monitoring cases of human rabies and track the animal source. Animal sources are not just limited to wildlife, as companion animals can be infected with rabies as well. AVM’s collaboration with other research teams (including UAB!) develop innovative projects that focus on some of the most prevalent diseases. Their collaborations embody the mission of One Health, by demonstrating that animal health is vital to improving the livelihood of populations.
Dr. Wright left us with a memorable approach to public health that will help us indicate when something needs attention: “Embrace the enthusiasm of looking at something weird.”
Teams 1 & 2