Monday, September 7, 2015

What does climate change have to do with vets? Interview with Dr Guyan Weerasinghe

Guy with his companion, Glen Coco.
Should veterinarians be worried about climate change? Dr Guyan Weerasinghe is one vet who believes we need to be proactive about the future, and preparing for the impact of climate change on animals is a priority.

What’s your day job?

Currently, I am the District Veterinarian for Greater Sydney Local Land Services (within NSW Department of Trade and Investment). I used to work for RSPCA NSW and before that I was a dairy veterinarian in NZ. I also locum occasionally through a company called VetPeople.

What motivated you to become a vet?

Initially, as a child, it was because I loved animals and had the usual story of chasing lizards and cats whilst a toddler. Yet, my actual motivation as an adult was because of the interactions I had with people via the animals in their life. At some point in the distant past, I was considering studying medicine after my initial science degree yet I found (and it was pointed out to me by many of my friends) that I often spent more time talking with friends about their pets and their health. Yes, there is that aspect of helping animals and the applications of veterinary science in all its forms, however the honest answer is that I do this job for the people.

You are currently the President of the AVA’s Public Health special interest group. What is it about public health that interests you?

I remember sitting in week 1 of vet school (UQ) and having Dr Bec Traub give a presentation about zoonoses and the role of bats as hosts for many viruses. From that point I was hooked and knew that was the path I wanted to take (admittedly, I was also hooked on dairy medicine as well due to a great first lecture from Dr Malcolm McLennan, which is probably why I went into dairy practice after graduating). While I do ramble on about zoonoses, I am also driven by the “big picture” thinking that comes with public health and how it covers a wide range of subjects from epidemiology, infectious diseases, food security and food safety. I consider us the perfect specialty to have around in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

Terms like public health evoke thoughts of the health of people. But vets are about animals. Where is the crossover?

Humans have a strong link with animals – whether it be through their livelihoods such as being a dairy farmer, a tight bond between a child and their pet or through our love at seeing wild animals in their natural habitats. And yet, the social, economical and even physical health of these people is dependent on these animals being healthy, or aware of the risks that come with their interaction. Take for example the dairy farmer – we vaccinate their herd for leptospirosis which will not only be of benefit to the animals but also the people working with the cattle as well as the people living in neighbouring properties. A movement many of us within the veterinary public health sphere have been promoting is “One Health” – the interlinking and connectedness of animal, human and environmental health. It’s a movement that seeks to create collaboration between the veterinary, medical and environmental health practitioners and scientists. 

Among other issues, one of the hot topics in public health is climate change. What has climate change got to do with veterinary science?

Climate change is a global issue that will likely impact on areas such as vector-borne diseases, food security, welfare and biodiversity. If the modelling shows that climatic extremes will either be larger or longer in duration, then this will have an impact upon the animals we care for. Veterinarians have a role to play in managing these impacts and should be engaged with the issue. I see Climate Change as a good example of a One Health issue.

What are the things that veterinarians can do to minimise or avoid adverse impacts of climate change on animal health?

That’s a tough one – I feel that we will mostly be dealing with the direct impacts of climate change – if there are to be shifts in agricultural regions or vector geographical distribution, we should be talking about these risks amongst our clients. Additionally, I feel that we should provide our collective voice for some actual action in addressing climate change from the powers that be – I don’t think we should shy away from being part of the discussion.

How would you like to see the profession tackle the issue of climate change?

I see Climate Change will likely have an impact on animal health and welfare. As veterinarians, we pride ourselves as being the spokespeople on animal health and welfare and I see the need for us to be engaged and encouraging for meaningful action.  

Thanks Guy. If you’d like to join the facebook discussion group for Australian vets interested in public health, look here.

Follow Guy on twitter here @GuyWeerasinghe, or look him up on LinkedIn.