Healthy animals and healthy people
Sparked by his passion for veterinary public health, Professor Wilks has been working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation for the past five years travelling the world as a zoonotic disease specialist – animal diseases that can affect humans.
“Zoonotic diseases are a huge global health problem – it is estimated that around 75 per cent of diseases, like AIDS and SARS that have emerged to infect humans in recent decades, have come from animals,” Professor Wilks says.
“Anyone in close contact with animals such as farmers and veterinarians is at a higher risk of contracting such diseases, but some can also spread very easily through indirect contact with infected animal products like unpasteurised milk.”
When there is a potential outbreak or problem detected, Professor Wilks heads straight to the area and works with the local citizens and government to develop global programs to enhance veterinary services and management techniques.
“The focus is to raise the level of understanding in the local community on how best to prevent and manage outbreaks – and this largely involves screening the animals for diseases,” Professor Wilks says.
“We help them develop preparedness plans so they are ready to fight any outbreaks.”
Most of his recent work for the UN has focused on the control of avian influenza, or bird flu, which has been recognised as a highly lethal viral disease of birds since the mid 1900s.
Avian flu has been around for a long time and has proved difficult to eradicate, according to Professor Wilks.
“One particular strain of avian influenza virus has acquired the ability to spread directly from poultry to humans, killing about 50 per cent of those it infects,” he says.
“We are therefore working to better understand the disease process in birds because protecting the animals from the disease is step one in controlling infection in people.”
Prior to his work with the UN, Professor Wilks was involved in some of Australia’s most significant eradications of diseases through his work with the Department of Agriculture in Victoria.
Professor Wilks played an instrumental role in a co-ordinated national program to eradicate the dangerous zoonotic diseases, brucellosis and tuberculosis, from all cattle in Australia.
“During the 1930s about 25 per cent of tuberculosis in children was caused by the cattle organism,” Professor Wilks says.
“The eradication program began in 1970 and my role during the late 1970s and 1980s was to lead the section in the Veterinary Research Institute in Parkville that had responsibility for testing cattle blood and tissue samples for brucellosis and tissue samples for tuberculosis.
“We provided diagnostic information on Australia’s cattle as the eradication program progressed, as well as confirming freedom from disease once eradication was believed to have been achieved.
“After decades of hard work, brucellosis was confirmed eradicated in 1989 and bovine tuberculosis was declared eradicated in November 2006 in Australia.”
Professor Wilks was trained as a veterinarian at the University of Melbourne and returned to teach in 1999 to develop a new Global Program for Veterinary Public Health at the Faculty of Veterinary Science.
“The program is designed to highlight the significance of animal health globally and the connection between animal and human health,” Professor Wilks said.
The Global Program for Veterinary Public Health is integrated into the Bachelor of Veterinary Science degree, and runs throughout the four years of the degree. Students become familiar with issues including emerging infectious diseases, food safety, antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases.
“We are also currently developing a new Masters level program in emergency animal diseases to extend our offerings in veterinary public health. This will be jointly presented with colleagues in the Victoria Department of Primary Industries and the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory,” Professor Wilks says.
The Masters level program will equip veterinarians with advanced skills to prepare them to play key roles in responding to disease outbreaks in Australia and around the world.
“The need for such a program was highlighted by Australia’s recent emergency animal disease event when equine influenza entered the country,” Professor Wilks says.
“I am hoping that over my years of teaching I have instilled some interest in veterinary public health so Australia’s future vets will think ‘big picture’.”