Public health work deemed a success if nothing happens

I attended a webinar a few weeks ago on the subject of the epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.

The speaker made an interesting statement when discussing various public health interventions and about the difficulty in assessing the success of those interventions.

She quoted a British systematic review that studied the return on investment of public health interventions. That study estimated that for every dollar spent on public health there was a $14 return.

However, despite that significant potential return on investment, the net results of public health interventions are largely invisible.

Public health work revolves around prevention, which results in a non-event. That is, if you are successful in your public health work, nothing happens.

It is easy to recognize the cost of those interventions, but it is hard to identify the return on investment. As a result, if there isn’t an ongoing public health emergency, it tends to be easier for governments to focus spending on health care rather than health prevention.

This got me thinking about our herd health interventions on livestock enterprises. There are many similarities between what we do to prevent disease in our livestock and the efforts public health agencies make to prevent disease in human populations.

We employ vaccines in our cattle herds, use appropriate mineral supplementation, ensure calves get adequate colostrum, and we work hard to provide environmental conditions appropriate for their welfare, all to prevent disease outbreaks. When we are successful with these various activities, it is a non-event. Nothing happens.

Cattle producers must be aware of the cost side of the profit equation. We work in an industry where producers are generally at the mercy of the market and have little control over the price of the commodity they are selling. We have far more control over the cost side of the equation and as a result, producers have worked diligently to find ways of minimizing the costs associated with maintaining a cow in the herd.

The costs of things like mineral and vaccines are easy to identify, and when times are tough it can be tempting to try to reduce those costs by cutting back on those expenses.

I get to witness the results that can occur because of these cutbacks in some of the disease outbreak investigations that I have participated in. Calves that are blind because there was no vitamin A in the cow ration, cows that are aborting because the vaccines weren’t given to the cow herd that year, and trace mineral deficiencies that can result in disease outbreaks in calves or reproductive losses in cows.

It usually isn’t hard to convince these producers to implement new preventive strategies in their herds after they have experienced some sort of devastating disease outbreak. They are now very cognizant of the fact that these herd health strategies, such as vaccines or trace mineral supplementation, is money well spent.

In the mid 1990s, I witnessed the discovery of trichomoniasis in several community pastures in Saskatchewan by Dr. Eugene Janzen.

It wasn’t hard to convince those producers to implement preventive strategies to attempt to control this important venereal disease in their cattle herds. They had suffered through several years of poor reproductive performance and were very motivated to prevent this parasite from infecting their herds.

However, as time passes, and the memories of those problems fade, it is far too easy to get complacent and wonder why we have to bother testing bulls or perhaps we can cut some corners and save some money? The result of good preventive strategies is invisible. Nothing has happened and so it’s easy to become complacent.

The Beef Cattle Research Council has some decision-making tools on its website that help to estimate the returns on investment that may occur with several disease prevention scenarios including bovine viral diarrhea vaccinations and bovine respiratory disease vaccines for feeder calves. These are available at

We need more tools like these to provide better evidence of the return on investment that occurs on our farms for concepts such as biosecurity practices, efforts to minimize calving difficulties, improving colostrum consumption, mineral supplementation, and low-stress weaning practices.

The net result of efforts and money placed on these types of herd health activities is largely invisible. If you are successful in implementing these activities, nothing happens, and as a result it is often difficult to convince some producers to put a lot of effort or expense into these activities.

If no disease outbreaks or reproductive disasters are occurring in your herd, congratulate yourself.

It is probably due in part to the efforts you and your veterinarian have made to provide your herd with good nutrition, welfare, vaccinations, and other disease prevention strategies.

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