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Uncle Sam Needs YOU: More Research Veterinarians Needed for Public Service

By Colleen Chandler
September 2005

Bill Stokes
(Photo by Blondell Peterson)

Reports are calling for executive-level coordination of veterinary research to overcome gaps in information sharing among federal agencies. To compound the problem, the supply of veterinarians appears to be shrinking just when the need for them is exploding, the reports said.

Smack dab in the middle of the issue is Bill Stokes, chief veterinary officer for the Public Health Service and director of an NTP council on use of alternatives to animal research.

As the chief veterinary office for PHS, Stokes advises the Office of the Surgeon General and the Office of the Secretary on the need for veterinarians in any federal agency, the appropriate use of the those veterinarians, when and where they should be deployed for Public Health Service emergencies and disasters.

In July, the National Academies' Research Council released a report detailing gaps and overlaps in the U.S. animal health system and potential threats from emerging diseases and bioterrorism. There are not enough research veterinarians, whose roles are to both protect human health and animal health, the report said. It also questioned the ability of the United States to respond to or even research deadly diseases that could sweep the nation via animals.

Another report, "Animal Health at the Crossroads: Preventing, Detecting, and Diagnosing Animal Diseases," went a step further. Based on joint research from the American Veterinary Medical Association and the World Veterinary Congress, it called for widespread information sharing and consolidated oversight among federal agencies dealing with animal diseases.

Seventy-five percent of new diseases are transmitted from animals to humans, and veterinarians are crucial in preventing, controlling and diagnosing them, Stokes said. With the avian flu, for example, the mortality rate is about 50 percent. Other examples of diseases that spread from animals to humans are anthrax, SARS, corona virus, West Nile virus and monkey pox. Bioterrorism agents, if released, could show up in animals first, Stokes said. Issues that veterinarians deal with are global health issues; climate change and the effect on ecosystems change the distribution of zoonotic diseases, or diseases originating in animals, he said.

Environmental health science is heavily dependent on the use of animal models, and veterinary pathologists are a necessary component. At NIEHS, there are a number of veterinarians involved in supporting, carrying out and overseeing National Toxicology Program studies, Stokes said. Researchers have to have a good understanding of the mechanisms in the whole animal to identify critical events that lead to toxicity. Developing new tools means better screening tools or batteries of system, he said.

Stokes said it takes at least eight years of college to become a veterinarian, plus another three to five years for a doctorate. The demand for veterinarians in private practice is increasing, Stokes said, while the role of veterinarians in public health is becoming increasingly important. To recruit more people into, not only veterinary science but public service, Stokes said there are several issues that must be addressed. To provide a sufficient quantity of board-certified veterinarians, there must be a sufficient number of veterinary schools, sufficient opportunities and funding for specialized training, and enough incentives such as student loan repayment.

Stokes is the executive director of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, or ICCVAM, which is administered by the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods, or NICEATM. Both groups evaluate new and revised test methods for U.S. agencies. Both ICCVAM and NICEATM were initiatives implemented to meet the requirements of the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993.

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