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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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by Marcia L. Headrick, D.V.M., M.P.H.
FDA Veterinarian Newsletter January/February 1999 Volume XIV, No I

Why Veterinarians as Epidemiologists in the FDA?

Usually, there is no specific requirement for applicants to have veterinary backgrounds to fill epidemiologist positions within the FDA. Epidemiologists often have other medically related backgrounds such as human medical, dental, and nursing backgrounds. However, veterinarians often fill epidemiologist positions at FDA Centers such as the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), and Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER). These FDA Centers recognize the diverse experience and expertise the veterinary epidemiologist can contribute to their mission. A number of veterinary epidemiologists have made significant contributions to public health during careers at the FDA and fill high-level public health positions within the agency, including CVM Deputy Director, RADM Michael J. Blackwell. One reason veterinarians may achieve success as epidemiologists stems from their initial veterinary training. The basic Veterinary curriculum emphasizes and includes cultivation of the scientific and analytic skills essential to the epidemiologist. Veterinarians are also trained to view medicine from a herd health perspective, which correlates well with the epidemiologist's role in studying public health issues on a population level. Therefore, it is a natural progression for veterinarians to acquire the additional training needed (e.g., the Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) or Ph.D. in Epidemiology) to qualify for epidemiologist positions.

How do Veterinarians become Epidemiologists?

Many veterinarians have completed training as epidemiologists at the FDA through a PHS-wide Epidemiology Training Program (ETP), which accepts a very limited number of highly qualified applicants each year. Although other health professionals are eligible, veterinary applicants are often selected for this program due to their versatility and broad public health backgrounds. FDA Centers have played an important role in this program since veterinarians are attracted to not only the opportunity for training and mentoring by FDA Epidemiologists, but also by the nature of the role the FDA plays in public health. The FDA Centers select individuals for the ETP, who then complete a year of graduate level training in epidemiology and public health, followed by a two-year residency at their host Center. CVM currently employs four veterinary alumni of this program, and two more veterinarians are currently in training or completing their residency. CDRH recently trained two veterinary epidemiologists through the ETP, one of which was selected for the CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) as a follow-on assignment. CFSAN is currently training a veterinary epidemiologist through the ETP and CBER recently trained a veterinarian in a non-ETP epidemiology fellowship program. With the emphasis on public health and food safety in the U.S. today, these veterinary epidemiologists are and will continue to be important assets to the FDA.

What is the role of Veterinary Epidemiologists within the FDA?

Roles vary somewhat between Centers, but veterinary epidemiologists are involved in a variety of pre-market and post-market activities. Pre-market activities include epidemiologic consultation and recommendations related to appropriate study design and conduct. Post-market activities include epidemiologic review and analysis of product-related medical literature and reports, post-approval study design recommendations, and post-market surveillance activities related to adverse events or other product-related concerns.FDA Veterinary Epidemiologists at CVM are involved with the President's Food Safety Initiative activities. They conduct epidemiologic studies and collaborate with other government agencies to gather needed data on the safety of the U.S. food supply, especially as related to drug use in food animals. One aspect of these studies, in collaboration with USDA and CDC, seeks to identify increased antimicrobial resistance development in enteric pathogens of food animals and humans, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli, and the relationship between them. Other efforts focus on the epidemiology of drug residues found in food animal tissues and efforts to determine accurate means of assessing levels of antimicrobial use in food animals in the U.S. Additionally, CVM veterinary epidemiologists collaborate in the investigation of food borne disease outbreaks associated with antimicrobial resistant pathogens in food animals, such as the Salmonella DT104 epidemic in England. CFSAN Veterinary Epidemiologists have been involved in epidemiologic analysis of data and the conduct of studies related to food borne outbreaks of raw milk associated pathogens, the health hazards of raw shellfish and seafood, and most recently, activities related to the President's Food Safety Initiative. CDRH Veterinary Epidemiologist responsibilities have included design and analysis of studies associated with medical devices such as breast implants, pacemakers, pacemaker leads, auditory canal thermometers, intra-ocular lens implants, implantable impotence devices, chlorhexidine coated catheters and implants, and implantable and external defibrillators. CBER Veterinary Epidemiologist activities are associated with surveillance for vaccine-related adverse events, including a recent study of pediatric deaths. This important study included interviews of family members to gather data related to these tragic events in hopes of discovering common risk factors and developing recommendations for preventing these occurrences in the future.

The diversity that Veterinary Epidemiologists bring to the FDA prepares them to function in many different public health arenas. Whether the public health issues relate to veterinary medicine, food safety, medical devices, or biologics, it is evident that Veterinary Epidemiologists play a fascinating and important role in FDA.