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Hands-on training to solve life’s ‘messy’ problems

The Intersection of Human, Animal and Environmental Health

Student veterinarians practiced tick-dragging techniques during the Ecoystem Health rotation. Complex problems require collaborative solutions. An innovative elective course for final year Canadian student veterinarians is providing hands-on training in solving challenges at the One Health intersection of animals, humans and the environment.

“The Ecosystem Health rotation exposes students to complex real-world problems, the process they need to manage these issues and work they need to do to develop solutions to solve them,” says Prof. Claire Jardine, course co-ordinator and professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

For fourth year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) student Alaina MacDonald, the rotation heightened her understanding of the role veterinarians play in solving multifaceted health issues on a global scale. “Examining multiple aspects of cases from the perspectives of public, animal and environmental health was great practice and a strong reminder of the challenges and rewards that come with being a veterinarian in today’s society,” she notes.

During the 2018 rotation, students worked with faculty from all five veterinary schools, including Profs. Katie Clow, Jennifer McWhirter, Cate Dewey and Claire Jardine from OVC, to tackle three issues: Lyme disease, a Campylobacter outbreak investigation and an over-abundant deer population at a national park.

“We approached the Lyme disease discussion from an animal health perspective, touching on issues encountered in veterinary practice, how we talk to our clients about it, how we educate and present a balanced, informative message, but we also looked at how Lyme Disease is maintained in nature and where we’re going to find it,” adds Jardine.

Students learned about tick ecology— distribution, habitat, and potential hosts —in Southern Ontario. They analyzed tick surveillance data to determine the current level of risk in the Guelph area, practiced tick-dragging techniques and evaluated the pros and cons of different tick surveillance strategies. Ultimately the students brought all their findings together to develop a tick awareness communications plan to keep health professionals and the public informed and safe, presenting it to Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) representatives for feedback and potential use in public education programs.

Sometimes solving complex health issues requires medical professionals to play the role of the sleuth. Through the rotation students were introduced to scenarios that tapped their epidemiology skills, investigating a ‘fictional’ outbreak of gastrointestinal illness in the local population caused by a resistant strain of Campylobacter. In this case, the only epidemiological or scientific link to instances of diarrhea in the human population was spending time at a local lake.

Lise Trotz-Williams, veterinarian and epidemiologist at WDGPH, described to the students an actual public health unit investigation, outlining the conclusions reached and how they attained them. “The students had the opportunity to put what they were learning during the course into the context of real-life outbreak investigations,” she notes.

Through hands-on, case-based learning, students were asked to identify all potential sources of Campylobacter, including waterfowl and other wildlife, pets, potential run-off from farms and local urban areas, including human waste. They also had to consider how they would gather samples.

They visited the lake and an adjacent farm and analyzed simulated data to identify potential causes of the human outbreak. Ultimately, they developed and presented a written report for the local public health unit, describing potential sources of contamination and opportunities to prevent these events in future.

The exercise highlighted that “these sorts of problems are messy and complicated and there is often no one clear solution,” Jardine states.

In some ways, the most difficult scenario for the group involved deer overpopulation at Point Pelee National Park in Southern Ontario. Students had to consider how the high deer count impacted the park ecosystem, such as environmental risks including over-browsed plants and health risks involving an abundant tick population. They also had to factor in communicating with the park’s multiple stakeholders as they discussed strategies to manage and reduce the deer population.

The students took on different roles during a town hall session—the species-at risk coordinator, farmers, hunters, animal rights activists, First Nations groups, park visitors and park staff—to try to understand the problem from many perspectives. By deepening their exposure to the complexity of One Health issues, students learned what needs to be considered, how to negotiate, stay open to other expertise and ultimately how to establish joint priorities and build consensus.

(In the photo: Student veterinarians practiced tick-dragging techniques during the Ecoystem Health rotation.)

The Ecosystem Health Rotation

The Ecosystem Health rotation is hosted at a different Canadian veterinary school each year.

It was originated in the late 1990s by Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) professors Bruce Hunter and University professor emeritus David Waltner Toews, in conjunction with veterinary faculty across Canada.

The 2018 rotation, hosted at OVC, benefitted from the diverse expertise of faculty from each of the veterinary colleges across Canada as well as local public health unit staff.

Members of OVC 1970 raised more than $200,000 through the OVC 1970 Robert Brandt Fund to support the rotation at OVC, as well as supporting a student from a university outside of Canada to attend. The 2018 rotation included two students from Mahidol University in Thailand.

“Our class came from all over the world, including the Caribbean, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, and the United States,” notes Clayton MacKay, OVC 1970. “It was a life-changing opportunity for me to spend four years with these classmates.”

Originally published in The Crest, Summer-Fall 2019 issue. The Crest is the research, teaching and health care magazine of the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph.