A University of Iowa study finds veterinarians face a much greater risk of infection from viruses and bacteria that can strike both animals and humans. The recent H-1-N-1 flu scare has raised questions about how animal diseases reach people. U-of-I researcher Whitney Baker says one potential route is through veterinarians.

"Veterinarians are serving as a sort of unprotected biologic sentinel or like canaries in the coal mine," Baker says, "where pathogens emerging out of animals would first infect the veterinarians who are caring for the ill flocks and herds."

She says the study found veterinarians can serve as a "bridging population," spreading pathogens to their families, their communities and to the various groups of animals for which they care. "They lack the training and the tools necessary to protect themselves from these emerging pathogens," Baker says.

"We’re recommending that improved safety measures, including them in the pandemic priority group and biopreparedness training, all of those tools would be essential to the veterinarians protecting themselves and the communities in which they live."

Baker, a doctoral student in epidemiology in the U-I College of Public Health, says veterinarians need to start by better shielding themselves from certain risks. Baker says, "Often times, they don’t wear gloves when caring for the ill animals but they have said that wearing gloves is impractical or it’s even difficult to even do what they need to do with all of this equipment on them."

She says the research found that veterinarians’ risk of animal-based infections is often higher than that of other groups with extensive exposure to animals, like farm workers. Baker says that’s "remarkable" since veterinarians have professional training in how to protect themselves from such infections. She says veterinarians should further their educations, especially in biopreparedness.

Baker says, "If there happened to be a bioterrorist attack with a pathogen in the animals, there needs to be training of the veterinarians in how to respond to that and how to incorporate human health into those strategies."

The nation’s current policies that aim to prevent a flu pandemic often overlook veterinarians, Baker says, which needs to change. The U-of-I research concludes: "Veterinarians play a vital role in biopreparedness, yet they do not seem to get much respect. We need to appreciate their many contributions, offer them special training and support them with public health policy measures."

The study appears in the May 15th issue of the "Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association" and can be found on-line here .