"Being able to create a sense of ease and well being for a population as opposed to one patient at a time seemed much more appealing to me," says Vanderwagen, who will be meeting with University of Saskatchewan students, faculty and staff on Monday, January 13.
The public health expert will speak about his One Health experiences at 12:30 p.m. in the WCVM's Room 2115. His second One Health talk will take place at 5:30 p.m. in E1130 in the E Wing of the university's new Health Sciences Building.
After receiving his medical degree at Michigan State University, Vanderwagen spent 25 years as a family physician on Native American reservations. That experience helped to prepare him for his eventual role as assistant secretary of the Office of Preparedness and Response for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"I believe that addressing the health issues of people involves addressing the health issues of animals as well. We increasingly see that organisms that exist in animals can mutate into human disease — and vice versa."
"It was pretty easy for me as a primary health care provider and public health worker to think about how one needs to be prepared to respond or to recover from disasters at a community level," Vanderwagen explains.
"The native view about health is much more holistic than western medicine, so we operated a more comprehensive health system."
Vanderwagen's disaster response work began in 1999 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked for his help with various response activities. One of those projects was working with Honduran communities affected by Hurricane Mitch at the request of the Pan-American Health Organization.
Since then, he has worked in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia and Kosovo. He was deployed to New York City following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, and he travelled to Louisiana after initial response efforts to Hurricane Katrina failed in 2005.
After retiring from the U.S. government, Vanderwagen joined Martin, Blanck and Associates as a senior partner in 2009. The consulting group advises biotechnology companies that are developing new platforms for vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.
Vanderwagen is a board member of the International Centre for Infectious Disease in Winnipeg, Man., as well as for Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) in Saskatoon, Sask. He also works with the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine in the U.S.
During his time in Saskatoon, Vanderwagen plans to visit with U of S health science students from the colleges of medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy and nutrition, kinesiology and veterinary medicine. He's hoping to share his One Health experiences with them — stressing the importance of One Health in solving human health issues.
"I believe that addressing the health issues of people involves addressing the health issues of animals as well," says Vanderwagen. "We increasingly see that organisms that exist in animals can mutate into human disease — and vice versa."
He points out that One Health is "an expanding realm" where the ability to work in a collaborative manner across the disciplines will provide for a better global future.
"It takes a collaborative process and sharing of science and technology if we're going to make significant contributions to improving the well being of the world."
And although Vanderwagen believes public health and One Health work are very fulfilling, he understands why the fields may be hard for some students to get involved in.
"It's difficult when students are incurring significant debts to convince them to take a lesser paying job that is more fulfilling and potentially more useful in dealing with global health matters," he says.
"I think students need to find experience and opportunities early on that will allow them to explore what public health means. I think they will rapidly find that it is a very fulfilling and useful career opportunity."
For example, Vanderwagen recalls spending a month with the New Mexico state epidemiologist in Santa Fe during his residency in family medicine.
"It was a great opportunity to get a sense of what the public health challenges are and the tools that people use to try to address those," Vanderwagen explains. "It bonded me even more to the notion that I could do public health and do it well and be satisfied with it."
He says veterinarians and veterinary students in particular have a lot to offer the field of public health.
"Animal health and human health are so heavily intertwined with the skill sets that veterinarians bring in terms of being clinicians, providers and epidemiologists who think in a multi-dimensional way rather than in a single species manner. They have greater utility in solving these problems," says Vanderwagen.
"I think there are roles — and very strong roles — for veterinarians."
Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student who was the WCVM research communications intern during the summer of 2013.