Planning for disasters and emergencies makes for an exhilarating career
When asked what kind of vet I am, my reply often results in bewilderment, because my career path has not been typical. So, what kind of vet am I? I’m a project officer in the Preparedness and Resilience Department at the World Organisation for Animal Health in Paris (OIE). I manage a large international joint project with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which aims to build multisectoral resilience against agro-crime and agro-terrorism. Every day at work, I have to pinch myself to check that I am not dreaming.
When I graduated from the University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 2013, I had a vague plan of pursuing a career as an equine vet but was unsure if it was the right path for me. Why? Throughout vet school, exotic disease and epidemiology had interested me. In fact, so great was my interest that one summer, I undertook a Wellcome Trust biomedical vacation scholarship with the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.
My project’s purpose was to identify and quantify livestock- and wildlife-associated risk factors for foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreaks in northern Tanzania. It opened my eyes to the broader application of a veterinary degree.
I also volunteered with Animal Care in Egypt, a charity that relieves the suffering of animals in Luxor’s poorest communities by providing free veterinary care and education. It highlighted to me how vital animals are for livelihoods and the wider role the veterinary profession should play in sustainable development.
This was my first eureka moment. I knew I wanted to use my training to contribute to improving the health and welfare of animals worldwide, but I was not quite sure how to get there. So, as with many new graduates, I decided to go into mixed practice to consolidate everything I had learned at vet school and hone my clinical skills.
Joining government service
After a few years, I saw an advert in Vet Record for Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) senior veterinary inspectors and decided to apply. Little did I know I was about to embark on an exhilarating career in Government Veterinary Services.
After some initial training, I was undertaking a variety of work that included animal welfare investigations, inspection of consignments at border inspection posts, responding to suspicious cases of notifiable diseases and bovine TB investigations.
It wasn’t only the work that was interesting, I also received excellent support in my personal development, in the soft skills that are crucial when working in a multidisciplinary and multisectoral environment. My managers were supportive and, recognising my interest in exotic disease, they gave me the role of lead vet for exotic disease for the agency in Scotland. In this position, I led a team of vets, animal health officers and business support staff from different offices in regularly reviewing and updating our plans and procedures for dealing with exotic disease outbreaks. I also pursued my interest in epidemiology by undertaking specialist training as a veterinary field epidemiology investigator. This role is similar to being a detective – treating a suspected or confirmed infected premises as a crime scene and taking a forensic approach as to how the disease got there, what its internal movements were, and where it went next.
'The role is similar to being a detective – treating an infected premises as a crime scene and taking a forensic approach to investigating it'
Move into contingency planning
During this period, I encountered simulation exercises and their use in improving the preparedness and resilience of the APHA in response to adverse events.
I was involved in supporting a programme of exercises for our team, testing multiple levels of organisation. The memories are still fresh in my mind – tabletop testing the response of the APHA and key stakeholders to an avian influenza outbreak in a large laying egg farm, a livestock tracing exercise at a food market and the UK’s national Exercise Blackthorn to test plans for an FMD outbreak. A highlight was a two-day field surveillance event where we worked with the British Army to determine how the military could support us in surveillance activities in a large-scale outbreak to meet surge capacity. It was an excellent way to foster teamwork – bringing together all relevant field and office staff who would be involved in a disease outbreak. It also made me realise the importance of interagency relations in any emergency response, and our ability to learn from one another.
To continue my interest in contingency planning, I applied for a secondment to the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease based at the FAO in Rome.
This was my first real taste of international work and I was tasked with supporting the improvement of emergency preparedness for FMD in the Balkans and supporting a surveillance system seeking to maintain FMD freedom in the Thrace region, which includes Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. It was fascinating visiting these countries to understand their capacity for emergency management and what opportunities there were, through collaboration, to improve emergency preparedness.
I led the design and delivery of simulation exercises for some of these countries. This meant I was organising, participating in, and sometimes leading high-level meetings involving chief veterinary officers and other senior animal health staff. This secondment not only increased my knowledge of FMD, but also fostered key skills such as programme leadership, strategic vision, stakeholder engagement and project management. I was motivated more than ever to continue to work internationally in emergency preparedness and this led to me joining the OIE at its headquarters in Paris.
The OIE is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for improving animal health and welfare worldwide, as mandated by its 182 members. For almost 100 years, it has worked to achieve transparency in the global animal health situation, including zoonotic diseases, to update and publish disease prevention and control methods, to ensure the sanitary safety of world trade in animals and their products, and to strengthen national animal health systems.
My colleagues and I in the Preparedness and Resilience Department promote the role of veterinary services in global health by supporting them to prepare for, adapt to, withstand, recover and advance from critical events. We also provide technical support to the OIE on institutional emergency management and incident coordination.
My main role involves fostering collaboration between the law enforcement and veterinary sectors through joint technical working groups, training workshops and simulation exercises, but also by promoting solidarity among OIE members at regional and international levels.
Day-to-day, I organise meetings and workshops, coordinate the development of risk-based guidance and prepare policy briefs for our senior management, advising them on the issues we are trying to mitigate. Working with INTERPOL, it has been fascinating to learn about the implications of animal pathogens on security, especially as we know that 80 per cent of agents with potential bioterrorist use are zoonotic pathogens. The project is also supported by the Weapons Threat Reduction Programme of Global Affairs Canada, a key member of the G7 Global Partnership Against Weapons of Mass Destruction. The outputs of the project are regularly shared through the partnership’s biological security working group.
As with all of us right now, the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has tested the OIE and its members. The OIE recognises the current pandemic as a true One Health emergency and has been sharing the latest available information on events in animals using its network of members, reference centres, Wildlife Working Group and through its partnership with the FAO and the World Health Organization. My team and I have played a central role in the coordination of the OIE’s response, supporting the formation of expert groups and the OIE’s incident management system.
We know SARS-CoV-2 spilled over from animals into humans to cause this pandemic and it is likely it will happen again, bearing in mind the ever-increasing contact between humans and animals.
As part of my work, we are exploring how we can ‘build back better’ to support more resilient animal health systems and advocate for a more multilateral and multisectoral approach to emergencies. The current pandemic has also underlined the need for innovative responses, and I hope to be involved in the OIE’s search for innovative ways to prepare for – and respond to – future emergencies or disasters, be they related to pandemics, climate change, wildlife issues or natural disasters.
'The current pandemic has underlined the need for innovative responses and I hope to be involved in the OIE’s search for ways to prepare for and respond to future emergencies or disasters'
Living and working in Paris has also afforded me the opportunity to learn French...I am hoping one day it will be good enough to facilitate a workshop fully in French. I’m a proponent of a healthy work-life balance; to relax I love nothing more than putting on my running shoes and going for a run after work. Living in the capital also means that weekend train trips to explore other parts of France or Europe are possible, travel restrictions permitting.
Writing this, I realise how unbelievable it is that this is where my veterinary degree has led me! Reflecting on whether I could have done anything different in my career, I would have joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps after graduation. I have always been fascinated by the military, the sense of discipline and the constant readiness to respond to adverse events, which is highly applicable in my current role. But if I were asked to advise someone considering a similar role in international animal health, I would say ‘Take the risk and seize the opportunities that arise, you never know where they might lead.’