Are animals making us sick?

A new commission sets out to improve the health of all living things.

This week, the One Health Commission held its inaugural summit in Washington. The commission was recently established in response to the increased threat of disease passed between people and animals, and the man behind it is Dr. Roger K. Mahr, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. He now serves as the commission’s CEO, and he talked to me about this week’s summit, relationships between humans and animals and the common chronic disease that afflicts both people and their pets.

The commission is new, but you’ve been focused on this collaboration between human health and animal health for years. Why?

There’s a need to look more closely at human-animal-ecosystem health. Over the last three decades, of all the emerging human diseases in the world, 75 percent are zoonotic—transmitted from animals to people—including HIV, avian influenza, monkey pox and West Nile virus. And actually, 60 percent of all the known human pathogens are cross-species related. Those diseases and the changing environment have created an increasing concern because of the movement of people throughout the world. Viruses can pass around the world before they’ve even completed their incubation stage.

Are humans and animals spending more time together than they used to?

The environment of bringing animals and people together more has increased—more than 70 percent of households in the U.S. have companion animals such as dogs, cats, birds, or guinea pigs. There’s the potential for transmission between humans and animals, such as internal parasites, worms, infections from external parasites (fleas, ticks) and fungal types of infections.

I have a beagle here; is there anything I need to worry about?

It’s important to understand that your animal walks in various parks and can get infections from other animals. So proper hygiene and proper testing and care by a veterinarian is important. Healthy animals means healthy people. Another aspect of One Health is the value of animals as companions. In the case of mental health companionship or as service animals, the human-animal bond is critical.

You’re suggesting we take precautions so we don’t get diseases from animals, but does it go the other way? Can we spread diseases to them?

H1N1 is the perfect example of that. H1N1 is a mutated virus--it’s components are swine influenza, avian influenza and human influenza. This particular virus has become a pandemic and is spreading from people to people, but it’s also been reported to have spread from people to ferrets, people to turkeys, people to pigs and most recently, people to cats.

If you could turn back time and change the course of H1N1, how would One Health have prevented it?

The goal of One Health is to work together to prevent the next H1N1 or the next avian influenza, and this can likely be achieved through detecting the disease at the onset, prior to it being transferred from animal to animal or animal to people. This is why it’s so important to address One Health on a worldwide basis, among people, animals and the ecosystem. It’s all-encompassing.

What was the upshot of your inaugural summit this week?

It was a ground-breaking event for the commission. We were able to really able to achieve our purpose of raising awareness of enhanced integration of human health, animal health and environment health sciences. It also set the stage for the work of the commission and served as a forerunner to the National Academy of Science’s study on One Health, which will really help establish our agenda.

What are some practical steps you’d like to see taken?

We’d like to see more interdisciplinary programs related to educating, training and research; more information-sharing in helping to identify the early detection of diseases; and more emphasis on prevention of diseases—both the infectious diseases and also chronic diseases—such as obesity, diabetes, joint disease, cancer. These chronic diseases are common among both animals and people. Obesity is the number one chronic disease in people as well as companion animals, so together, both the owner and the animal can work together to alter their eating habits and exercise.

Photo courtesy of One Health Commission.

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