Why maintaining animal well-being safeguards public health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Caring for animal's health is important not only from the welfare perspective of the animal but also for humans. Prevention programmes such as vaccination will protect pets from a number of diseases, which in turn can protect people too, writes Declan O'Brien.

Declan O'Brien, is Managing Director of IFAH-Europe, an association representing the interests of manufacturers of veterinary medicines, vaccines and other animal health products in Europe.

With around 70 million homes in Europe having at least one companion animal it is not surprising that a lot of people consider their pets as another member of the family to be cared for. But how is Europe looking after the needs of its animal populations and how does animal health and welfare impact our lives?

Looking around us we can see that we share this world with a diversity of animals. Every day we rely on them to provide us with companionship, leisure, transportation, support, and, from our livestock animals, food. To some degree or another we all depend on animals. They are part of our families. They help us to stay active as we get older. They assist us when necessary. And they even save lives.

Every year IFAH-Europe celebrates the wonderful things companion animals do for society at European Pet Night at the Bibliothèque Solvay in Brussels. The event brings together a wide range of stakeholders (18 at the 2013 event) who all work in animal-related activities. The Belgian charity APOPO, speaking at this year’s event outlined the impressive way in which rats help us with landmine and tuberculosis detection in Tanzania, Mozambique, Thailand, Angola and Cambodia. APOPO trains the rats through their sense of smell which has led to massive amounts of land cleared of landmines (2.6 million square metres in 2011[1]) and more than 2200[2] people diagnosed with tuberculosis that previously undetected by microscopy.

Disease and landmine detection are just two examples of the many ways in which animals help us. The list is impressive: from fire and rescue dogs helping to find survivors following natural disasters; to assistance dogs providing support for the blind, deaf or disabled; from medical alert dogs safeguarding those with life-threatening diseases; to cats, dogs, and horses offering therapeutic care to those in need, right down to the family pets bringing joy and companionship to those caring for them. These actions alone highlight the great value these animals bring to society and the need for appropriate care they deserve from both policy-makers and the general public.

Europe has a responsibility for all animals and one of those responsibilities is to ensure their health and welfare. No matter how well they are cared for, animals can get sick and will need medicines, just like we do. Equal access to all relevant medicines across Europe is key to providing proper healthcare. The revision of the veterinary Directive planned to go into co-decision in June 2013 offers legislators the opportunity to ensure that if a medicine is licensed according to the Directive in one country, it should be available in all countries to the benefit of pet health and welfare.

Caring for their health is important not only from the welfare perspective of the animal but also for us. Prevention programmes such as vaccination will protect pets from a number of diseases, which in turn can protect people too. 60% of infectious diseases in people have their origin in animals so it is very clear that maintaining animal health means safeguarding public health. One example of this is rabies. Although eradicated in a number of European countries through effective vaccination programmes, rabies is still present in some Eastern European countries and in other parts of the world, killing some 55,000 people around the world annually.

Maintaining the ability to care for our pets and indeed, other animals, can be done through pan-European access to all veterinary medicines, the responsible use of those medicines and continuous investment in innovation so that new solutions can be identified. If we are to ensure our animals’ health and welfare for the future – be it our farming animals, the cat that sits on our lap after we get home from a hard day’s work, or the dogs that are trained to save people’s lives – we must safeguard the veterinary medicines we have in terms of their availability and efficacy and we must encourage innovation whenever we can. Taking care of our animals is after all, taking care of ourselves!

[1],2 Figures from APOPO 2011 Annual Report: http://www.apopo.org/en/about-apopo/press/annual-reports

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