Public Health Hero: Jonna Mazet

JONNA MAZET, DVM, MPVM, PHD – UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS

Dr. Jonna Mazet uses her expertise in veterinary medicine and wildlife epidemiology to protect us from the next emerging infectious disease threat. “Predicting where new diseases may emerge and detecting viruses and other pathogens before they spread among people, give us the best chance to prevent new pandemics,” says Mazet, professor of epidemiology in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California (UC), Davis. She is executive director of the UC Davis-based One Health Institute, founded on the one health principle that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are intricately linked.    

The One Health Institute brings a unique approach to global health problem solving with the one health approach at its core. They strive for collaboration between many different disciplines, such as physicians, ecologists, and veterinarians. This, says Jonna Mazet, DVM, MPVM, PhD, has been a missing link in global health for decades. “We’ve all been working hard towards a common goal but not working together.”

Many diseases – from Ebola to MERS to HIV/AIDS – first emerge in animals and then spread to humans. Mazet is principal investigator and global director of the USAID-funded PREDICT project, a surveillance program that partners across the globe to detect emerging pathogens before they spillover from animals to humans and identify how people interact with animals to help mitigate epidemics at their sources. 

“We’re working in some of the most resource-constrained areas in the world,” Mazet says. “Certain countries may have a good lab for human health but not for animal health, so a big piece of the puzzle for global health problem solving is missing.” The program works to build laboratory capacity and bring molecular techniques to these resource-constrained countries, “so that they can diagnose disease, as well as identify or ‘discover’ new potential pathogens on site.” 

In one example, training through the PREDICT program helped the staff at a wildlife sanctuary in Santa Cruz, Bolivia respond quickly when six monkeys were found dead in 2012. PCR testing and autopsy examination led them to suspect an outbreak of Yellow Fever. The Bolivian Ministry of Health was alerted early on and the country swiftly implemented vaccination, mosquito control, and education programs to quell the outbreak and prevent human deaths. 

During veterinary school at UC Davis, Mazet thought she would go into wildlife or zoo medicine.  “That’s what really opened my eyes to thinking about public practice and public health.” Because wild animals are exposed to a greater extent than humans to environment toxins, such as mercury in marine animals, “wildlife are a great sentinel for environmental damage and change … when they get sick it’s an early warning system for our health.” She went on to complete a Master’s in Preventative Veterinary Medicine (MPVM), which looks at veterinary medicine from a population level, as well as a Doctorate in wildlife epidemiology. 

When asked about the importance of investing in global health, she replies, “We are one, global society now even though we haven’t organized into one political system and don’t have one health threat warning system. We can’t just hole up here in the US and think that we’re protected – we’re not. We’re all together in this, and the more that we can come together across regions and political boundaries, the healthier we all will be.”

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