An enduring lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic will be that public health issues need stable support.
We need to take the long view, even when not much is happening. By now, we are all comfortable with some basic epidemiological and public health concepts such as the idea of asymptomatic carriers, infection control practices and the use of isolation to reduce infectious disease spread.
There are many lessons here for animal health.
Vast resources committed to fighting the pandemic range from research and vaccine development to the more hands-on side of things such as virus testing, infection control practices and contact tracing. When the dust of this pandemic settles, there are some other important animal-related public health issues that will benefit from similar attention and resources.
First is the issue of antimicrobial resistance. Bacteria are increasingly able to shrug off our routinely used antibiotics, leading to untreatable infections in animals and people. The world is approaching a time when routine surgeries and simple infections pose a high risk of being resistant to currently available antibiotics. This is relevant to both human and veterinary medicine.
According to a recent article in the medical journal Lancet, the global situation is dire with more than 700,000 people dying annually from untreatable infections.
Asymptomatic or subclinical carriers are a feature in the spread of some of these antimicrobial resistant bacteria. Others survive well in the environment, ready to strike if a weakened animal or person presents themselves.
The science is well-established that overall use of antimicrobial medications promotes the evolution of resistance in bacteria. Both human and veterinary medicine have a role to play in reducing use of antimicrobials to limit this emergence.
According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic has precipitated overuse of antimicrobial medications where patients present with mild symptoms and have not developed bacterial pneumonia.
Furthermore, patients hospitalized with the illness have an increased chance of acquiring multi-drug resistant infections.
The increased use of antimicrobials in hospitals has relevance for animals. Hospital waste water often contains active forms of these medications and can contribute to resistant bacteria in the environment and wildlife, which can subsequently circulate to our domestic animal species, including food animals.
The pandemic also saw a delay in routine veterinary care for pets because people were initially reluctant to take their animals to veterinary clinics. A decrease in the number of elective surgeries may have consequently reduced the use of antimicrobials in companion animals.
The second public health issue of importance is rabies. The WHO set an ambitious goal to eliminate human rabies cases by 2030. Globally, there are about 60,000 fatal cases each year. It is particularly devastating that most cases occur in children who contract rabies from infected dogs in developing countries.
Closer to home, Canada sees sporadic cases of human rabies; last year a man died from the disease in British Columbia after contacting an infected bat. A number of wild animals carry rabies, but of most importance on the Prairies are skunks and bats. This is a disease that continues to need public health support to eliminate these deadly infections.
Finally, influenza has not gone away. There is an ongoing possibility of wild birds transmitting novel arrangements of the influenza virus to domestic birds, people and swine.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t changed the fact that we are due for a pandemic influenza virus and there is a good chance this one could be far more serious than the 2010 H1N1 outbreak. We need to continue to support initiatives that track global flu spread and detect novel variations of the influenza virus in animals and humans.
Collective knowledge generated from the current COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully increase the support for long-term public health initiatives, including those that interface with animal health.
Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc,PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @JRothenburger