7
Role of Communication and Education

Several speakers addressed the importance of making the general public and legislators aware of the dangers of emerging animal diseases and of the need for additional funding to improve the animal health infrastructure. Some also discussed the role of formal education and training in preparing those who work in the field of animal health to meet today’s needs.

COMMUNICATION

There is no better time than now, while concerns about foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and bioterrorism are still fresh in the public consciousness, to communicate to the general public and legislators the changes that are needed in the animal health infrastructure to bolster our ability to respond to emerging animal diseases, according to several speakers. William Hueston stressed the importance of seizing this “teachable moment” or window of opportunity to “rapidly make changes or solidify the system.”

Hueston argued that not enough attention is being paid to the importance of risk communication. “In the absence of accurate information and credible spokespersons, the general public will fill in their concerns with perception. My experience says that 99 percent of the time the perceptions are worse than the reality,” he said. Often, government agencies are constrained by political



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7 Role of Communication and Education Several speakers addressed the importance of making the general public and legislators aware of the dangers of emerging animal diseases and of the need for additional funding to improve the animal health infrastructure. Some also discussed the role of formal education and training in preparing those who work in the field of animal health to meet today’s needs. COMMUNICATION There is no better time than now, while concerns about foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and bioterrorism are still fresh in the public consciousness, to communicate to the general public and legislators the changes that are needed in the animal health infrastructure to bolster our ability to respond to emerging animal diseases, according to several speakers. William Hueston stressed the importance of seizing this “teachable moment” or window of opportunity to “rapidly make changes or solidify the system.” Hueston argued that not enough attention is being paid to the importance of risk communication. “In the absence of accurate information and credible spokespersons, the general public will fill in their concerns with perception. My experience says that 99 percent of the time the perceptions are worse than the reality,” he said. Often, government agencies are constrained by political 27

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28 EMERGING ANIMAL DISEASES considerations, so independent sources such as universities could assist by issuing complementary reports. Corrie Brown noted that veterinarians could be a “tremendous conduit of information to the public” because they have broad-based biomedical training and, according to a recent large market survey, are highly trusted members of the community, ranking just below clergy in this characteristic. EDUCATION Dr. Peter Eyre, Dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, stressed the need for specialized training in veterinary schools. “Why—since the general public, the profession, the industries are looking for specialized veterinarians—are the schools of veterinary medicine still producing only generalists?” he asked. Eyre described a core elective tracking curriculum at his college that provides a common foundation to all students, but then allows individual students to focus on areas such as epidemiology and public health, food animal, or small animal practice. The curriculum includes independent research and externships, which give students valuable experience in industry and government. “We discovered that it was extremely well received and, statistically, approximately 50 percent of the graduates who go through these government and corporate programs go directly into a government or corporate job,” he said. Brown noted that many students entering veterinary medical colleges are unaware of the wide range of jobs available to them in industry and government. Moreover, many colleges are not doing a good job of educating students “about the importance of public and corporate veterinary medicine, about global veterinary medicine,” she said. She noted that several programs are being implemented to address this problem, including a stand-alone Internet course on foreign animal diseases funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The goal is to “create a cadre of veterinarians, hopefully at each of the veterinary schools, that will then help to change the culture within the school so that students then begin to think outside the halls of the school, outside of the county, outside of the state, outside of the country.” There needs to be a major shift in education, she added. “I go back to the saying that they use in many medical schools, ‘when you hear hoof beats on the covered bridge, don’t think about the zebra….’ Now, in this whole new world order, we have to teach students and practitioners that they have to think about the zebra.”