Around the World as a Public Health Veterinarian

Nov 10, 2014 / Preventive Health / Public Health

[Livestock management in Bolivia]

Think a veterinary degree prepares you

only to vaccinate dogs and cats? The career path of Dr. Maureen Birmingham will make you think again.

Recently, the 1983 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine spoke to students at her alma mater in Urbana, Ill. Describing herself as a “fortunate victim of a lot of fortunate opportunities,” Dr. Birmingham has been all around the world helping to prevent and resolve disease—in both people and animals.

After veterinary school Dr. Birmingham worked as a clinician in a large animal practice in upstate New York for a few years, but realized that she wanted something else from her career.

“Every other night I was on call,” she says. “It was not sustainable in the long term, but a wonderful experience for locking in my veterinary skills and the art of veterinary practice as well as building communication skills with clients.”

She spent the late 1980s working for nongovernmental organizations, first in Haiti and later in Bolivia, where she taught veterinary technicians critical skills to help subsistence farmers improve their economic situation.

“In rural Haiti families kept a pig as their living savings account, to be cashed in for special circumstances, like paying for school or an unforeseen family crisis or event. So pigs were critical to the rural economy,” explains Dr. Birmingham, who was part of a program to reintroduce pigs to the island after all had been slaughtered to eradicate African swine fever there.

“In Bolivia we taught veterinary technicians not only about basic veterinary medicine and animal husbandry but also about how to maximize the fiber yield from alpacas and meat from guinea pigs for better profits,” says Dr. Birmingham. “Bolivians raise guinea pigs as a cost-effective and traditional food source, so we helped them manage these animals as well.”

Over the next several years, she and Dr. Peter Quesenberry, a veterinarian who spent most of his life working in Asian countries, wrote Where There Is No Animal Doctor, a manual on basic measures to prevent and treating animal diseases for people living in remote areas around the world.

The next phase of Dr. Birmingham’s career was earning a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University, Boston, Mass. From there she joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and was deployed to Africa for most of the next two years to work on child-survival issues.

“This EIS program provides excellent training in field epidemiology, for example, by participating on the frontline in outbreak investigations both domestically and internationally. Some of the more well-known investigations of EIS officers include the emergence of Legionnaires’ disease, polio, cholera, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, influenza, as well as the public health aspects of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina to name a few,” she says.

Eventually CDC transferred Dr. Birmingham to Geneva, Switzerland, to work on global polio eradication in a program led by the World Health Organization (WHO). She and her husband spent the next 12 years in Geneva, where she completed a CDC residency program in preventive medicine and cultivated her skills as an epidemiologist, manager, and administrator.

From there Dr. Birmingham and her husband moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to get closer to field work.

“At first I was in a regional position with WHO on emerging diseases. After SARS, it was felt that this is where the next flu pandemic would likely begin, given the ongoing H5N1 transmission,” she notes. “By accident, I fell into the position of WHO representative to Thailand.”

[Dr. Maureen BIrmingham in her Mexico City office]

As the World Health Organization/Pan American Health Organization representative to Mexico, Dr. Maureen Birmingham leads a team that works on issues ranging from pesticide/chemical management and public health emergency preparedness to addiction prevention/treatment and childhood obesity.

After more than 6 years in Thailand, she moved with her family to become a WHO/Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) representative to Mexico.

“My role now is as a generalist, managing the various WHO/PAHO programs of cooperation with the government,” explains Dr. Birmingham. “My team delves into all sorts of topics, such as environmental health including pesticide/chemical management, strengthening preparedness and response to public health emergencies, addressing the health effects of climate change, applying public health approaches to reduce violence, addiction prevention/treatment, reducing maternal mortality, reducing the very high rates of road injuries, and addressing childhood obesity and the soaring diabetes rates.”

Promoting public health is a collective effort among many sectors. Veterinarians like Dr. Birmingham play an important role. Moreover, the “One Health” movement seeks to bring animal and human health fields closer together to better predict, prevent, and control emerging diseases, given that 75 percent of all emerging diseases in humans come from animals. Veterinarians are well positioned to address this problem.

“Even something as simple as effective public communications to wash hands for the prevention of bird flu makes a difference,” she says. “Veterinarians are very relevant in public health.”

By Melissa Giese