Project work in 11 countries aims to prevent spread of zoonotic and animaldiseases

As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, a consortium of veterinaryscientists has been established to train a new generation of ‘animal diseasedetectives’ in 11 countries across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“A year after African swine fever wiped out more than a quarter of the globalpig population and with more than 200,000 people dead from COVID-19, equippingveterinarians with the tools for disease outbreak investigation andsurveillance has never been more important,” said program leader AssociateProfessor Navneet Dhand from the University of Sydney School of VeterinaryScience and Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity.

The scientific consortium includes more than 40 experts from veterinaryschools across Australia, New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific.

“The coronavirus outbreak has underlined how urgent this work is,” AssociateProfessor Dhand said. “The majority of emerging infectious diseases, such ascoronaviruses, are zoonotic: they spread from animals to humans.

“To protect humans from these diseases we must look for pathogens and disease‘upstream’ in domestic animals and wildlife before they spread to the humanpopulation.”

Associate Professor Dhand said the consortium will engage with governmentanimal health authorities and educators in the Asia-Pacific region tostrengthen the capacity to detect, respond, control and prevent animal diseaseoutbreaks that could affect human health, animal health and farmerlivelihoods.

The program is funded by the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security at theAustralian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Associate Professor Dhand said: “Our program will support our neighbours’efforts to deal with these emerging threats and in doing so, strengthenAustralia’s biosecurity, health and economy.”

Researchers emphasise that while this coronavirus has its origins in an animaltransfer, there is no evidence the COVID-19 virus can be contracted from petsor other animals.

Transboundary animal diseases, which travel quickly across borders, andzoonotic diseases, which transfer from animals to humans, are increasing infrequency due to a range of factors, Associate Professor Dhand said. Theseinclude population growth, urbanisation, land-use change, encroachment intowild habitats and increasing global air travel.

“These diseases can spread rapidly across borders and have huge economic andhealth impacts. We are finding this out right now with coronavirus,” he said.

The DFAT-funded program will develop capacity for early intervention in theinvestigation and management of animal disease outbreaks in the Asia-Pacificregion, helping to halt the spread of transboundary diseases.

“We will work with our international partners by strengthening on-the-jobtraining for veterinarians and para-veterinarians,” Associate Professor Dhandsaid.

“Our focus on disease surveillance will support veterinary authorities toidentify any change in animal health patterns so that early intervention andpreventative actions can be taken to stop the spread of disease,” he said.

Alongside the on-site training, veterinarians and para-veterinarians will beoffered project work with their in-country animal health ministries. Selectedcandidates will be provided with fellowships for further training inAustralia’s world-class veterinarian schools.

Consortium partner Charles Sturt University will lead the para-veterinariancomponent of the program. Dr Andrew Peters from CSU’s School of Animal &Veterinary Sciences, said: “This project is an opportunity for vet schoolsacross Australasia to make a meaningful difference to animal health and thewellbeing of communities across our region. We are looking forward to workingclosely with the University of Sydney and regional partners to build effectivetraining for animal health officers in the Pacific.”

Carolyn Benigno from the Philippine College of Veterinary Epidemiologistssaid: “The project will add value to current training programmes acrossseveral countries as it will standardise teaching materials while retaininglocal context and incorporate on-the-ground realities in Southeast Asia. Theproject output will help equip countries across the region to respond todisease emergencies in a timely manner.”

The consortium includes world-class epidemiologists from all of the veterinaryschools in Australia and New Zealand and one in the US. They will work within-country partners and representatives from the World Health Organization,the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Centre for Diseases Controland TEPHINET to develop and deliver sustainable training programs to boost thecapacity of the animal health workforce to work with public healthauthorities.

The $4.3 million program will run for three years in Cambodia, Fiji,Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands,Timor-Leste, Vanuatu and Vietnam. ****

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