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Mastering Human and Animal Public Health

by Dennis Hinkamp

Alumni Hall of Honor speaking

According to Ron Munger, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Sciences, public health degree programs broke out from medical schools about 100 years ago. It’s only in the last 10 years that land-grant universities have become involved. Some have described the movement as bridging the chasm between agriculture and public health. An example of this is the concept called One Health, which recognizes that human, animal and environmental health are all connected and unites medicine with agriculture, ecology, and environmental sciences. One Health also promotes community engagement on topics such as diabetes prevention and food security on a global scale.Though there are many Master of Public Health (MPH) programs across the country, the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences’ MPH is one of the first to be offered completely online and to include a veterinary medicine track. The program incorporates two of the college’s strengths: veterinary medicine, and dietetics and nutrition.

“We hope to attract students with diverse backgrounds and get people out of their academic silos,” Munger said. “They might be interested in politics or human rights in addition to veterinary medicine and nutritional sciences. Our MPH includes courses on public policy along with quantitative science and core classes in nutrition.”

Global Health

One of Utah State University’s first MPH graduates will be Anja Wutz, who earned her bachelor’s degree in health promotion at Weber State University. She has an interest in nutrition and health on a global scale and lined up a practicum in Ghana on her own after also volunteering with the Weber County Health Department.

 Wutz was attracted to the MPH public health nutrition track because she knew USU had strong agriculture and dietetics programs. She said she also was interested in global nutrition issues and that Ron Munger has a lot of experience in that area.

“I was looking for a resource-constrained environment,” Wutz says. “Though it is not part of the MPH, I was able to find an internship through Child Family Health International. I spent 6 weeks in Accra, Ghana. The children’s hospital where I and nine other students volunteered was primitive even by poverty standards in the U.S. There were not enough beds, no toilet paper in the bathrooms, no computers and none of the diagnostic equipment that we are used to seeing in any hospital here. They had an X-ray machine but it was broken while I was there. So nothing here could prepare me for that.”

On a typical day, Wutz worked in the nutrition rehabilitation ward of a children’s hospital with babies suffering from severe malnutrition, often related to diarrhea. Their malnutrition was also related to yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria. The water is not safe to drink and the food is often unclean. Wutz also helped educate mothers in an outpatient clinic monitoring their baby’s health progress. On Sundays she helped with a vaccination clinic, walking the streets with a public health nurse administering vaccines on the spot.

Wutz is on track to graduate in the spring of 2019 and is considering a Ph.D. in nutritional neuroscience, but says she might take a gap year and try to line up another practicum.

Animal Health

Jane Kelly, veterinary diagnostician and a member of the faculty in USU’s School of Veterinary Medicine,  said veterinarians who receive an MPH degree increase their qualifications to become board certified in veterinary preventive medicine as well as seek employment opportunities in local, state, and federal agricultural and environmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a state’s department of agriculture . 

Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are a huge burden on global economies and public health, Kelly says. Of particular concern, 60 percent of EIDs are zoonotic (animal diseases communicable to humans). Of the 60 percent that are zoonotic, 72 percent originate in wildlife. This emphasizes the important role that veterinarians play in public health. Examples of zoonotic EIDs include SARS (severe, acute respiratory syndrome), West Nile virus, and Ebola virus. Kelly earned her MPH degree after 25 years of being a veterinarian. The course introduced her to areas of study such as epidemiology, ecology and food safety.

Since USU has a network of branch campuses across the state, students have the option of taking some of their classes in person, Kelly said.

“We also hope we can develop local practicums near these campuses,” Kelly said. “Students at distance education campuses may also be able to find local practicum experiences. Being online and self-paced addresses the needs of early and mid-career professionals who want an additional degree.”

Doug Winters lives in Salt Lake City and does not fit the mold of a new student or mid-career professional. Winters might best be described as post-career. At age 72 with a long career as a microbiologist, he says he was attracted to the program out of intellectual curiosity.  

Winters served 39 years in the U.S. Army and as a reservist. He served in Germany, Washington D.C., and at Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds as a laboratory animal veterinarian. Although he describes himself as “technically retired,” he teaches biology at Salt Lake Community College and occasionally fills in at the Hill Air Force Base veterinary clinic in addition to working toward his MPH degree.

“It’s just something I wanted to do,” he says. “The only surprise was that I had to take a statistics class. Even though I have had a long successful career with 80 scientific publications to my credit, I always had someone else do the statistical analysis. I was told I couldn’t get out of it this time.”