CVM alums pursue global health mission across the world

By Carolyn Crist

Imagine taking your daily evening run to the Coliseum in Rome, hearing colleagues down the hall speak in five different languages and running social media accounts for World Rabies Day.

That’s how Julie Thompson (DVM/MPH ’19) spent her three-month internship with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) during the summer of 2018. It’s tough to imagine a better way to satisfy the internship component of her Master’s in Public Health degree.

“It was the ideal experience for a student interested in global health,” she said. “One of my favorite aspects was being surrounded by people from all over the world in one place.”

During her time with FAO, Thompson became an integrated member of the Veterinary Public Health and Feed and Food Safety team, where she helped with many of the ongoing projects related to zoonotic infectious diseases. Her main work fell under the United Against Rabies collaboration, which links the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Global Alliance for Rabies Control (GARC) and FAO. The collaboration’s goal is to eliminate human deaths due to dog-mediated rabies by 2030.

For instance, Thompson helped to coordinate plans for World Rabies Day on Sept. 28, 2018, which included creating social media content to promote awareness. She launched a “Did You Know?” campaign that explained facts about rabies worldwide. She also learned about integrated bite case management and how that plays a role in rabies transmission, as well as how some communities prioritize treatment post-exposure for those who have the highest risk of contracting the disease. As part of this, some communities have created templates for which authorities to contact first and what to do next, but not all heavily-affected areas have these guidelines. Thompson took on the task of creating an overall template for countries or regions that don’t yet have a resource to follow.

“Not every situation is the same, and one template doesn’t fit all scenarios, but it’s important for people to know what to do first — such as contact a veterinarian — and what will happen next,” she said.

Thompson heard about the FAO internship during a WHO internship in Switzerland, where she met a veterinarian who worked at FAO on influenza projects. Before Switzerland, Thompson studied emerging pandemic threats in Vietnam and food-borne pathogens in the wild bird population in Malaysia. Collaborating with others to help several populations across the globe has expanded her mind beyond the diseases in the United States.

“It was fascinating to be exposed to the main goals and objectives for other countries around human health, agriculture and production,” she said. “Even if it’s not in the U.S., it’s still important to know why we vaccinate animals and how humans can protect them.”

Now that she’s completed both degree programs, Thompson is ready to take her global health experience and apply it to her next step. She’s now attending Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine for a combined PhD and postdoctoral position doing research on Chagas disease. Most commonly seen in South America, the disease has become more prevalent in Louisiana as the climate has changed.

“My internships around the world gave me perspective, and I’ve passed on the information to DVM students in classes behind me,” she said. “It’s amazing to see UGA graduates doing awesome things across the world.”

As part of the internship, Thompson was able to meet and work with Dr. Juan Lubroth (DVM ’85), who is the chief veterinary officer for FAO. He works daily with OIE, WHO, regional groups and the 193 countries that are part of the United Nations. As soon as they met in Italy and she expressed interest in the rabies collaboration, he joked with her and immediately began asking virology questions. They crossed paths several times during her internship.

“The veterinary profession is such a big brother and sisterhood that you can go into any community, and even if you don’t know the language, you can build a bond around caring for healthy animals and the people who rely on them for their livelihoods,” Lubroth said.

FAO, which houses the largest animal health program in the world, is present in 130 countries and deals with food systems, trade, animal health and animal care. Nearly 250 veterinarians work for FAO projects and programs, plus another 200 microbiologists, wildlife experts, communication and behavioral scientists who oversee animal health and its safe production. In fact, Lubroth helped to write the Manhattan Principles of One Health in 2004.

“Ensuring healthy, wholesome and safe food is one of the most important things we do as humans, and we tend to forget that,” he said.

Lubroth visited the CVM in October 2018, which was his first time back on campus in more than three decades. He was able to see the new CVM buildings, meet Thompson again and speak with students, researchers and other staff.

“It was heartwarming because I met my wife in Athens, and our son was born there,” he said. “It’s nice to see where the CVM is and what it’s become.”

One of his colleagues, Dr. Lee Myers (DVM ’84), also gained experience in Rome as the liaison between FAO and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previously the state veterinarian of Georgia, Myers was a risk analyst with FAO’s Crisis Management Center. She interacted with Thompson during her internship as well.

“It’s important for students to know about the global opportunities to get more experience in animal health work,” Myers said.

For instance, with a presence in so many countries, FAO experts work in fisheries, forestry, and animal genetics, as well as other aspects of that affect food insecurities, such as floods, famine, human conflicts and climate change. Since 70 percent of the world’s poorest people rely on their livestock for their livelihood, FAO steps in to help with disease surveillance, preparedness and outbreak control.

“With an increase of connectivity in the world, both with transportation and information flow now more than ever, something happening in the developing world can impact the developed world,” she said. “Anything we can do to attack diseases at their source will offer protection for the U.S. as well.”

Previously an adjunct professor in the CVM’s Department of Infectious Diseases before she started the FAO contract, Myers is returning to campus this fall with new ideas about global and local partnerships that could expand emergency management experience for students. For instance, she’d like to incorporate more One Health initiatives into the CVM curriculum, as well as build a connection with FAO for internships and jobs.

“I want to see it as the norm for current professionals and future generations to train internationally,” she said. “It’s not about spending a few weeks in another country but building the mindset of contributing to the global good, knowing the current situation around the world, and being involved in your local community.”

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