Vets fear pandemic outbreaks

Published Aug 12, 2023


Pressure mounts to include vets in managing zoonotic diseases

Durban - South African veterinary organisations say the country is not ready to deal with another pandemic and will be “found wanting” if vets are not included in strategies to tackle zoonotic diseases.

This week the World Health Organization said a new strain of Omicron, known as Eris, was a variant of interest and was believed to be more contagious than previous ones.

South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) president Dr Nandipha Ndudane said vets had been ready to serve during the Covid-19 pandemic but were largely overlooked despite their expertise.

“Vets were not given a direct role to play during the Covid-19 pandemic. I think that was a missed opportunity because vets have expertise. We are so used to dealing with outbreaks, communicating with communities, putting up biosecurity, road checks, communicating with diverse stakeholders and handling pressure, so that experience would’ve been handy.

“In other countries vets were called on board and assisted with messaging. Some veterinary facilities were used to develop vaccines while some vets were also retrained to assist with vaccinations.”

Right now the country’s veterinary community is dealing with four outbreaks: rabies, mostly in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal; foot and mouth disease, African swine fever, and avian influenza in the Western Cape, which led to a total ban of poultry products from that province, said Ndudane.

“We feel we are not being utilised and yet we are here to assist, and we have the experience and the exposure and the know-how to deal with diseases and disease outbreaks.”

Ndudane said it was vital to work on pandemic preparedness before the next outbreak through an integrated One Health programme which includes the veterinary fraternity to “understand the role animals will play in propagating that pandemic, the effects on humans and the impact on the food chain”.

She said they would have handled the pandemic differently; for instance there were too many mixed messages which confused people.

She said global organisations for animal health advocated for the integration and utilisation of vets to deal with the pandemic, and while it happened in other countries, they were sidelined in South Africa.

“South Africa needs to learn from that and learn from vets. Scientists have been saying the next pandemic is around the corner, but I hope and pray we don’t have a pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 because, wow, Covid was scary.”

Ndudane said when human doctors were earmarked to be vaccinated first, the SAVC and other bodies asked that they be included because they played a key role, especially in food security. The request was not acknowledged.

South African Veterinary Association (Sava) president Dr Paul van der Merwe said given that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, vets “know best” when it comes to dealing with it. When Sava approached the government to offer its expertise, they were given the “cold shoulder”.

“As soon as it’s a spillover to human health, they disregard the input that vets can give and that is exactly what happened in Covid-19. They should’ve involved vets from day one in terms of the management of that disease, which they did not.”

Van der Merwe said Covid-19 was a respiratory disease, and veterinary experts would have dealt with it differently.

“Isolation of animals with respiratory disease is basically the last thing you will do, so the whole thing about suddenly strictly isolating people to try to prevent a disease, I think, is probably the worst way of managing it. Because in any disease, you need a level of immunity to be built up, and by isolating you are preventing that system from developing.”

He said while the restrictions and isolation were implemented to help the health facilities to cope, it could’ve been done differently and prevention is better than cure.

“You go out and you say people must wash their hands and wear a mask, but you don’t capacitate people to do that.”

Van der Merwe said he worked in a rural community of about 800 000 people and 80% of them did not have access to water.

“So how do you tell them to wash their hands regularly when there is no water?”

He called for the One Health approach involving human, animal and environmental health to be widely implemented so the “the different occupations can collaborate to manage health”.

The Independent on Saturday spoke to One Health expert Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a Ugandan vet who pioneered this approach during her work with the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the humans who lived nearby.

Through her NGO, Conservation Through Public Health, she promoted hygiene practices and vaccinations among humans after the gorillas picked up human diseases like scabies. It also played a huge role in preventing the spread of Covid-19 among the gorillas.

“I think in general, people’s public health and conservation practices and animal welfare practices are beginning to improve as a result of Covid. In the case of the gorillas, tourists are willing to wear masks, and can’t visit the gorillas or chimpanzees without wearing masks. Now almost everybody who gets sick doesn’t really get very sick, because most of them are vaccinated.”

She said veterinary public health was similar to human public health but took a broader approach and examined all the issues about diseases jumping back and forth between species.

Kalema-Zikusoka has been appointed to the WHO Special Scientific Advisory Committee for the origins of novel pathogens and is one of four vets out of its 25 members. She said the One Health approach was crucial because you can’t address the health of animals alone, as people can make them sick – especially the case of the great apes.

The Independent on Saturday