Human and Animal Health Special Interest Group

Looking through the health stories featured by the media in recent years it is clear that from Avian flu to Zika, zoonotic infections (diseases that can be transmitted to humans from animals) have had their fair share of the limelight. Zoonoses have been recognised for centuries, and more than 200 – caused by all types of pathogen, from bacteria, parasites and fungi though to viruses and prions – have been recorded.

However, Human and Animal Health issues extend far beyond infectious diseases. In many more rural areas in the UK, we do have high rates of many gastrointestinal infections but there are other significant public health considerations for those who make a living from working with animals. These include the physical hazards of working with large animals and potentially dangerous machinery. Agricultural work environments also pose significant public health threats. Farming has long been known as a suicide-prone occupation, and it is thought that financial pressures, isolation and relatively easy access to potentially fatal machinery, chemicals and weapons lie behind this.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has looked at the agricultural sector in Great Britain and estimated that in 2015-16 there were around 16,000 cases of work-related illness and 15,000 non-fatal workplace injuries. There were also 27 fatalities. Despite this significant burden of ill health, in 2012, when I was fortunate enough to attend an international conference in Sweden on agricultural health, I was one of the very few delegates from the UK.

Local public health teams have been working to address some of these issues. For example some areas have worked with the HSE to run events for farmers covering for example quad-bike safety, basic risk assessment and lone working. There have also been outreach events in conjunction with the National Farmers’ Union and with Young Farmers’ Clubs.

In some areas public health teams have attended rural shows and these events have provided opportunities to engage with communities on a number of health issues. In one rural area, a recent survey of local farmers and their families found that the main stressors were difficult market conditions for selling stock and the consequent business pressures, isolation, having to use dangerous machinery and the weather.
These local initiatives are a start, but more could be done across the UK to tackle these health issues in a coordinated fashion.

The Human and Animal Health Special Interest Group will aim to take on this challenge. The aim is to support best practice and to provide a focal point for members with common interests to exchange ideas, knowledge and information. In particular the group Areas of activity will include:
• antibiotic resistance
• agricultural work as a hazardous activity (including biological, chemical and mental health aspects)
• the human-animal bond phenomenon
• zoonotic infection.
We currently have around a dozen members and the terms of reference are being agreed. The next step will be a workplan. If you are interested in joining us, please do get in touch.

Dr Nigel Calvert 
Human and Animal Health Special Interest Group Lead