University of Calgary

Veterinary public health in SE Asia

UToday HomeMay 14, 2012

Veterinary medicine professor Craig Stephen (foreground) was part of a team that helped build capacity in Sri Lanka to protect against emerging diseases and rebuild new opportunities for sustainable seafood production after the tsunami in 2004. Photo courtesy Craig StephenIt started with the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people in southern Asia, including the woman responsible for developing a veterinary public health program in Sri Lanka. The country’s fishing infrastructure, which is an important source of protein and income for rural communities, was also critically damaged.

A year or so later, a Sri Lankan official visiting Canada happened to read a newspaper story about Veterinarians Without Borders and ended up calling veterinary medicine professor Craig Stephen to ask for help building new capacity in Sri Lanka to protect its citizens from emerging diseases and rebuild new opportunities for sustainable seafood production.

That phone call led to a now international veterinary public health (VPH) program that’s trying to stop emerging infectious diseases (EID) in Asia. Most EIDs come from animals and many occur in tropical areas. The best way to reduce human exposure is to control disease in animals.

The team’s VPH activities ranged from evaluating and designing policy advice for government VPH and EID programs, developing new ways to quickly report diseases using mobile phones, understanding how to mobilize and motivate people to be involved in surveillance and conducting field investigations for diseases like leptospirosis and Japanese encephalitis.

Stephen and his colleagues also helped improve ways to find disease early and recognize signs in animals that may signal risks to people, improve policy to better link animal health with public health and help develop more qualified people to build on the project’s progress. At the same time, the team began to find ways to cultivate positive human health outcomes by promoting a sustainable aquaculture sector.

The project has trained people on the ground, linked programs among other countries in Southeast Asia, sent several Canadian graduate students to Sri Lanka as well as built a foundation for new policies and programs in Sri Lanka, including the creation of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Health Centre.

And it’s spread. “We’ve already worked on influenza policy in China and have expanded into Nepal where we are collaborating on research on Japanese encephalitis. We have trained a cohort of Canadians and Asians in global health and created new approaches to emerging disease detection and assessment,” says Stephen.

He says the other big legacy of the project will be an approach to VPH that emphasizes social and ecological interactions rather than focussing only on microbiological phenomena.