FRS 124: When Cows Go Crazy: The Inextricable Link Between Human and Animal Health

Class of 1975 Freshman Seminar

Since 1940, more than 330 infectious diseases have emerged into human populations. The majority of these have been caused by zoonoses, which are diseases of animals that infect humans. Examples of zoonotic diseases include HIV/AIDS, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (e.g., mad cow disease), West Nile virus, ebola, and avian influenza. Many of the agents of bioterrorism are zoonotic, including anthrax, plague, and tularemia. Since the conditions that promote zoonotic disease emergence and spread persist, we should anticipate that more of these diseases will continue to threaten global health.

In the 19th century, there was considerable communication and collaboration between physicians and veterinarians. Medical luminaries such as physicians Rudolf Virchow and Sir William Osler recognized that understanding and improving animal health improved human health. In the 20th century, these collaborative efforts waned and the two professions have moved apart. However, the growing challenges of the 21st century demand that the barriers that have developed between them be broken. Students will be introduced to the “One Health Initiative” concept, which seeks to integrate human, animal, and ecological health.

In this seminar, we will explore the history of veterinary medicine and how its initial mission was primarily to enhance human health. Animals will be divided into four categories: companion (pets), livestock, exotic/zoo, and wildlife. Who owns the animals determines how governments respond to crises, so we will examine the government infrastructures that are responsible for animal health.

Case studies of human-animal health crises will be explored including: the U.K. bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis (1986 to 1996) and the New York City West Nile virus crisis (1999). Readings will include articles from the medical and veterinary medical literature. Students will not be expected to understand technical medical terms, but through discussions, they should understand the general concepts. Students will be exposed to concepts in human and veterinary medicine, basic science, and epidemiology. In addition, we will explore how government institutions, international organizations, and professional associations respond to crises and shape policy.

This Class Satisfies the Social Analysis (SA) Requirement