Vaccinations are nothing new to veterinarians. This forms part of our routine care for many animals we treat including cats, dogs, horses, pigs, chickens and cows etc throughout their lifetimes. Pets must be vaccinated to ensure they are safe for interacting with other animals and humans, while food animals must be vaccinated before entering the food chain, so as to ensure their suitability for consumption. Some diseases such as Leptospirosis and Salmonellosis can even spread to humans (zoonoses) so it is critical that this is done.
Vaccinations are also nothing new for humans. We have been receiving them as babies for centuries such as those for measles, mumps and rubella. Similarly, animals early in life receive vaccinations that protect against detrimental and contagious illnesses such as Parvovirus and Canine Distemper Virus. Without them they could suffer from neurological deficits, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory difficulties with a high chance of death as they are incurable. The parvovirus first emerged in Europe in 1976 and by the 1980s a vaccine had been developed and successfully used, reducing fatalities dramatically. But how does a vaccine even work?
Though the technology used to create each vaccine may differ, the general concept remains the same throughout the species. Vaccines teach the body how to make antibodies which are part of the immune response generated when the body comes in contact with a foreign organism (not from the original host). We are born with some antibodies (native immunity) and other antibodies, the body must be taught to create through vaccinations or natural exposure to the agent (acquired im-munity). This immune response may then need to be bolstered by additional doses given to keep antibody levels high enough to adequately fight. The intervals between doses may vary (tetanus is usually given every 10 years while flu shots are now given annually as new strains develop). For each of these vaccines, there are accepted protocols worldwide for administration and likewise in the veterinary world, we have accepted standards for vaccinating pets and food-producing animals.
The last pandemic occurred a century ago (Spanish Influenza 1918) during which virus identification and vaccine development took decades to understand. Science though founded in facts is also in a fluid state. Our knowledge continues to change and expand as new evidence is brought to the table and our world evolves.
In these unprecedented times, vaccines against COVID-19 have been developed rapidly to combat fatality and rising case numbers. In order to quickly administer them, the scope of qualified professionals was broadened to include not just medical students but also veterinarians, veterinary students and animal health technicians in the USA and Canada. This began in Nevada, Ohio, Colorado, Oklahoma and Manitoba as of February 2021. Earlier than that, several US states and the United Kingdom called on veterinary professionals to be on standby to assist in emergencies due to their skills.
We veterinarians are involved in the health system beyond animal care through the One Health concept, which recognizes the intricate relationship between humans, animals and the environment. In order to care for one, you must care for the others and the acknowledgement by governments of our role in this is a testament to our indispensability.
Dr. Simone Johnally is an equine and small animal practitioner who sits as the Public Relations Chairperson and Animal Welfare Chairperson of the Jamaica Veterinary Medical Association