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Alumna Uses One Health Concept to Investigate Diseases

Since graduating, Dr. Heather Venkat (DVM ’13, MPH ’14, DACVPM ’18) has been able to apply crucial skills in veterinary medicine, public health, and epidemiology towards disease surveillance, outbreak preparedness and response, data analysis, and education and outreach.

She obtained her DVM from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013 and Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014 via the College of Veterinary Medicine’s joint degree program, and most recently became a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine (DACVPM) in 2018.

After practicing at a small animal clinic for two years, she joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program, where she spent two years working as a “disease detective” in Arizona. Although she enjoyed clinical practice, her true passion has been to create an impact on populations and on a much larger scale in the health realm.

From investigating outbreaks of St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile virus, Salmonella, measles, and Elizabethkingia infections, to working with Native American tribes and other partners on Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rabies, and hantavirus surveillance and prevention efforts on the reservations, to emergency and response planning for imported and local transmission of Zika virus or other emerging/re-emerging diseases, the best part about Dr. Venkat’s job as an EIS officer was that every day was different.

“I never know what a new day will bring, and I enjoy the variety and challenge of balancing multiple projects at any given time,” she says.

Last year, Dr. Venkat investigated an outbreak of leptospirosis among dogs and helped assess zoonotic transmission to people, including risk factors for leptospirosis infection.

“Veterinarians play a vital role in the health of animals, humans, and the environment. I use that One Health concept on a daily basis, no matter what project I’m tackling.”

After completing EIS, Dr. Venkat continued working for CDC in a new role as Career Epidemiology Field Officer (CEFO) within the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. As a CEFO, Dr. Venkat is assigned to the Arizona Department of Health Services and acts as the State Public Health Veterinarian. Since July 2017, she has continued to combat zoonotic and vector-borne disease threats with a focus on emergency preparedness and response for infectious diseases.

Dr. Venkat is currently working on several projects, such as determining prevalence and mapping of coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever) cases in dogs to use as sentinels for human disease, personal protective equipment use and risk for zoonotic disease exposure among local wildlife professionals, and implementation of a One Health Toolkit for local/county/other partners to use to improve communication and collaboration.

“CEFOs serve to increase capacity for effective public health surveillance, epidemiology, and response efforts at the state and local level,” she says. “I am grateful to be working my dream job and to know that I am truly making a difference in the lives of both human and animal populations.”

Images and text provided by Dr. Venkat