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April 29, 2019

A Veterinarian Without Borders: Dr. Jarra Jagne’s International Veterinary Career

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What do you think when you hear the word “veterinarian”? While fighting epidemics may not be what immediately comes to mind, veterinarians are a key part of global health. Their expertise is needed to curb the tide of zoonotic pathogens, diseases which can be transmitted from animals to humans. The work of Dr. Jarra Jagne, a veterinarian and senior extension associate at the Cornell Veterinary School, illustrates the contribution veterinarians make to public health.

Bird flu, or H5N1, is a potentially deadly zoonotic disease spread to people by birds. During the resurgence of the H5N1 avian influenza, Jagne was a member of the avian influenza response unit of the Food and Agricultural Organization, part of the United Nations.

“We would go to a country and work with the government, work with the veterinarians, do some training and train their veterinarians in how to approach disease control,” Jagne told The Sun.

In addition to training veterinarians, Jagne assisted in affected countries that lacked basic diagnostic infrastructure.

“We helped organize testing [of samples], especially because many of these countries did not have the tests needed to confirm the type of avian influenza they were dealing with,” she said.

As a consultant for the response unit, she helped mitigate this issue by working with local veterinarians and governments to develop standard operating procedures for safely sending samples to labs at the World Health Organization, where they could be analyzed.

Later, Jagne took her international veterinary experience to the United States Agency for International Development.

As a part of a USAID-funded team called the STOP Avian Influenza Project, she and her colleagues helped countries develop emergency response plans to prevent and contain future outbreaks.

Jagne said that she and her colleagues at the U.N. and at USAID had to be sensitive to the cultures and governments of the countries they worked in, describing the balance between diplomacy and science as “like trying to cross on a very narrow bridge, swaying on either side.”

According to Jagne, sometimes countries bought vaccines but due to organizational and often bureaucratic challenges, did not utilize them correctly. Some countries used too little of the vaccine; in Egypt, where a multiple dose vaccine would have increased efficacy, poultry were often only given the first dose.

Even if recommended disease control strategies approved by international organizations like the U.N. and USAID were being implemented, these strategies often clashed with local cultures.

“In Thailand, in the Buddhist tradition, just going and killing an animal without any reason is not done,” said Jagne referring to the FAO’s recommendation to fully depopulate farms with infected birds.

Jagne also expressed economic concerns about depopulation. If you remove all of the chickens from a farm, “what are you doing to people’s livelihoods?” Jagne said.

Despite the controversies, the Thai government tried to balance the need for epidemic control and economic stability by compensating farmers for poultry they were required to destroy.

And the ever-present question: If another avian influenza epidemic outbreak occurs, how prepared are organizations to handle the burden? The answer, according to Jagne, is complicated.

In the face of epidemics, protecting the health of the public relies not only on scientific research, also on international healthcare structures that investigate and respond to epidemics. A framework for these structures that emerged during the avian influenza epidemic was “One Health” — defined by the CDC as the concept that “the health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment.”

But the “One Health” initiative doesn’t just apply to a link between doctors and veterinarians.  It reflects the need for a global effort to combat epidemics that are as far-reaching as zoonotic diseases. Dr. Jagne firmly believes it is this force, a system of collaboration spanning not just countries but continents that will better prepare the world for the next epidemic.