The Many Roles of the Veterinarian: Dr. Carrie McNeil and the One Health Initiative

vet in the desert
Photo courtesy of Dr. Carrie Mc.Neil

On a balmy riverfront on the mighty Amazon, a veterinarian stands knee-deep in oil, consulting with villagers on how best to preserve the health of the ecosystem after a spill.

Perspiring in the 100-plus-degree heat of a California desert, a veterinarian holds a well-worn pair of binoculars up to her eyes as she watches for signs of bighorn sheep on the trails.

And in New Mexico, a veterinarian with clipboard in hand goes door to door talking to residents in the first community-based rabies survey in the United States.

The many roles of a veterinarian outside the traditional confines of the clinic are fascinating enough on their own, but consider this: All three scenarios above are lines on the résumé of a single woman, Dr. Carrie McNeil. She is one of many veterinarians on the forefront of a critical but often overlooked aspect of the profession: public health.

The One Health Initiative, now a well-recognized movement in community health, embraces the concept of collaboration between physicians, veterinarians and public-health professionals in order to improve the health of entire communities. “You can’t solve these problems alone,” says Dr. McNeil, and as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer for the Centers for Disease Control (which is one of numerous organizations listed as a One Health Initiative collaborator), she knows this better than most.

An Unexpected Start to a Public Health Career

Dr. McNeil’s journey began as a pre-vet student at the University of California, San Diego, “grooming and blow-drying cats on the weekends,” she laughs. Her interest in policy issues led her to take a year off after her bachelor’s degree to work in Sacramento for the state assembly, focusing her attention on environmental law and policy while deciding on which veterinary school to attend.

“Davis was the top school to study wildlife and ecosystem health,” Dr. McNeil explains, and she became highly involved with the renowned Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis during her professional studies. Her first project involved tracking mountain lions and bighorn sheep in Southern California to better understand the impact of human encroachment on native mountain lion territory. “We tried to find a way to minimize the impact of human trail usage,” she says. “There is a huge education component as well: How do you live in an area with wildlife and keep everyone healthy?”

Private Practice vs. Policy

Upon graduating with a DVM degree, Dr. McNeil had to choose between launching into private practice or continuing her policy studies. “I really missed big-picture policy health,” she says, so she spent the next two years consulting in Latin America and the Central Valley’s Delta Keeper project on the topic of water health. “In Ecuador, you go down there and you’re standing in a foot of oil at the base of the Amazon. The kids are sick, the animals are sick.”

Seeing the need for a better understanding of the intersection between human, animal, and environmental health, Dr. McNeil then focused on shoring up her proficiency in veterinary medicine with a year-long internship in West Los Angeles, which proved to be “intense and rigorous training, and I learned the best medicine I could possibly learn from amazing veterinarians.”

After finishing her internship, Dr. McNeil worked as a general and emergency practitioner, splitting her time between the Bay Area and New Mexico. “In New Mexico, I was constantly educating people about plague and Tularemia,” two serious diseases passed from animals to humans. In the Bay Area, she found herself counseling clients about the effects of pesticide usage. “A lot of my job in emergency medicine was counseling clients about preventive care so they don’t have to come back.”

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