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UW–Madison sends two to elite epidemic-investigation training

December 20, 2011 By David Tenenbaum

Two people trained at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine have been chosen for a highly competitive federal program that hones the skills needed to investigate epidemics. The two-year exhaustive training program in epidemiology will take place in the elite Epidemic Investigation Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stephanie Salyer, who graduated from UW–Madison’s dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) — Master of Public Health degree program last spring, and Ryan Wallace, a fourth-year veterinary student who will graduate from with a DVM degree in May, are representatives of an emerging collaboration between veterinary medicine and public health, says Christopher Olsen, professor of public health and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Veterinary Medicine.

With training in both veterinary medicine and public health, the two will be perfectly poised to explore the animal roots of infectious disease, says Olsen. “We estimate that about 70 percent of emerging viruses and other pathogens ‘jump’ from animals to humans, and are thus called ‘zoonotic’ diseases,” he says.

Students who are attracted to the combined degree “have an inquisitive nature, and tend to see beyond the traditional definition of a veterinarian,” says Olsen. “In the last few years particularly, we’ve had students with a strong interest in wildlife diseases and environmental issues who are attracted to public health training.”

The epidemic investigators play a critical role in tracing outbreaks of disease like SARS and Ebola, Olsen says, sometimes working in remote locations where animal viruses first infect people.

Salyer, who is in a veterinary medical internship in New York City, says, “I got interested in global public health during my first year [in veterinary medical school] and spent six weeks in Ecuador. It was an immersion course in cultural perspectives on health and disease in both humans and animals, and included a home stay with a Spanish-speaking family. I wanted to do more research, disease discovery, conservation related work.” Ideally, she says, the CDC posting will allow her to spend time hunting microbes overseas.

Before he entered UW–Madison’s veterinary medical school, Oshkosh native Ryan Wallace got a master in public health degree at Emory University, and worked at the CDC. “I worked with Epidemic Investigation Service officers and saw the opportunity of going out on outbreak investigations or leading large scale programs,” he says. “I’d always had an interest in veterinary medicine; I’d always grown up with animals, and my love for animals probably rivals my love for studying the disease process. This is a great way to combine them.”

The growing interest in the relationship between animal health and human public health represents a return to the roots of public health, says Olsen. At first, the focus was infectious diseases, many of which, like rabies and bovine tuberculosis, could spread from animals to people. In the 1960s, Olsen says, due to progress in antibiotics and vaccines, “the pendulum swung toward a focus on chronic disease: obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

But starting with the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, “We saw the pendulum swing back toward infectious disease and the animal connection,” Olsen says. “Since then, we’ve had several influenza viruses and SARS virus that were traced to animal hosts, and we now recognize that more than two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases are connected, directly or indirectly, to animals. So it’s critical that veterinarians trained in public health become prominent in the larger public health community.”

And with the growing emphasis on environmental factors on health, “Folks who have both the veterinary medical degree and the master of public health are perfectly positioned to work in the environmental health area,” Olsen says.

UW–Madison was one of the first institutions in the country to start the joint DVM-Master in Public Health program. The campus now has other joint degrees that have enriched the master in public health program, Olsen says.

“The program is truly interdisciplinary, with students from human and veterinary medicine, pharmacy, law and public policy and other disciplines all sitting in classrooms together, working on projects together, and developing a sense of the value of interdisciplinary work. These are attitudes that they will take with them into their work in public health,” he says.