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The role of Australia’s chief veterinary officer is a big one, but Dr Mark Schipp relishes his diverse duties and the many issues—exotic disease outbreaks, antimicrobial resistance, pandemics—the job involves. By Dr Phil Tucak
When an outbreak of the canine tick-borne disease ehrlichiosis was detected in dogs in northern Australia early last year, it was a compelling example of the importance of Australia’s exotic disease surveillance system. When a disease incursion like this occurs, the response is overseen by Australia’s top veterinary official, Canberra-based chief veterinary officer Dr Mark Schipp.
The brown dog tick which carries the Ehrlichia canis bacterium, is endemic across northern Australia, making containment of the disease challenging. The disease outbreak has since been confirmed in various locations across the Kimberley, East Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia, along with several locations in the Northern Territory, and in the remote north of South Australia.
“In 2020 we detected ehrlichiosis in several dogs in northern Australia and in consultation with the relevant state and territory chief veterinary officers, a response plan was initiated—focused on coordinating the implementation of movement restrictions for dogs travelling into and out of affected areas, and alerting veterinarians and pet owners to this disease threat,” explains Dr Schipp.
In the same year, other disease threats were also unfolding. In July and August three different strains of avian influenza were detected across six commercial production farms in Victoria including egg farms, turkey farms and an emu farm.
“We responded to the three avian influenza outbreaks in Victoria, and this was at the same time as the state was navigating lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic—an issue my office was also involved in responding to.
“The emergence of COVID-19 raised a series of questions in relation to its origin and its impact on animals. My team have been contributing to work internationally to determine the origin of the virus, the conditions of its spillover and how this might be prevented in future,” says Dr Schipp.
When it was found that cats and dogs could potentially become infected by COVID-19, Dr Schipp and the various state and territory chief veterinary officers around Australia met to develop guidance and provide advice to veterinarians and pet owners.
Together with Australia’s chief medical officer, Dr Schipp has also been leading Australia’s response to the emerging pandemic of antimicrobial resistance. With the enhanced global focus on One Health, Dr Schipp highlights the important role that veterinarians play as the world tackles a variety of challenges.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of One Health and how a disease potentially emerging from an animal source can impact humans.
“The challenges we face—present and future pandemics, food insecurity, antimicrobial resistance—can only be addressed comprehensively by drawing together expertise from many disciplines. The One Health approach of considering the interaction between human health, animal health and the environment is very powerful, and vets are uniquely placed to contribute through the breadth of their training, expertise and experience.
“I think it is often quickly evident to a vet that the health of an owner is directly related to the health of their animal and the environment they both share. Vets are also comfortable with dealing with emerging disease events at a population level, so it was also pleasing to see a number of government veterinary epidemiologists contributing to Australia’s COVID-19 response,” he adds.
As Australia’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Schipp is responsible for advising government on emerging animal health threats to protect our animal health environment, and opportunities to enhance Australia’s animal health status, international trade and market access.
He also represents Australia internationally on matters concerning animal health and welfare—both in terms of how these issues may potentially impact Australia, such as identifying potential future pandemics at their source, and contributing as part of global efforts on issues like combatting antimicrobial resistance.
“Recently we have been very concerned about the emergence of African swine fever, African horse sickness and lumpy skin disease in our region—diseases that previously were largely confined to Africa are suddenly on our doorstep,” says Dr Schipp. “I chair the national committees that come together whenever we have an emergency animal disease event, and I am often the national spokesperson on these types of issues.”
As the nation’s top vet, Dr Schipp is cognisant of the challenges faced by veterinarians in clinical practice, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a variety of workforce issues that the profession is contending with.
“During this pandemic, veterinarians have continued their vital work amidst the challenges of social distancing restrictions, increased use of personal protective equipment, and a surge in demand for veterinary care.
“The veterinary profession is a caring profession, so it is inevitable that vets will invest emotionally with their patients and clients. This can be exhausting work and is often not well compensated. Practices in rural and remote areas are finding it difficult to fill vacancies. The profession is now having much needed discussions on this topic but no clear solutions have emerged as yet, which might be expected of such a wicked problem.”
He adds: “As professionals we have high expectations of ourselves, sometimes these expectations are unrealistic, sometimes circumstances conspire against us, sometimes it all gets too much and our mental health suffers. Our own health and wellbeing is sacred and needs to be protected and nurtured so that we can fully express our potential.”
A world of experience
Since his graduation from Murdoch University in 1989, Dr Schipp has pursued a veterinary career devoted to government veterinary work. He initially worked with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture as a district veterinary officer in various locations around the state.
After several years in this role, he joined the federal agriculture department, working in export abattoirs in several states before moving to Canberra to work on export meat policy and operations.
“In 2000 I was appointed agriculture counsellor in Seoul, South Korea with responsibility for north and east Asia, and in 2003 at the completion of my posting, I was appointed agriculture counsellor in Beijing, China where I opened and established the agriculture office there,” he explains.
“When I returned to Australia in 2006, I returned to the export meat program, leading negotiations on export meat conditions and our representation in international food safety standards. In 2011 I was asked to act as chief veterinary officer at the time of the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia and I was subsequently confirmed in the role.”
Up and up
Working overseas in Asia had provided Dr Schipp with invaluable international experience, and in 2012 he was elected to the Council of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). In 2015, Dr Schipp was elected vice-president of the OIE, and then in 2018 he was elected president—with his term recently completing in May 2021 at the OIE General Session, the organisation’s annual global gathering.
“In taking up the OIE presidency I hoped to increase the veterinary voice on global issues of relevance, enhance governance within the OIE and improve member participation in the standard-setting work of the OIE,” recalls Dr Schipp. “I think I have largely achieved all of those in my three-year term which has been severely disrupted by COVID-19. In addition, we have seen the OIE undertake a large body of additional work on wildlife health.”
The role of Australia’s chief veterinary officer involves a heavy workload, but Dr Schipp enjoys the diverse activities of the position and the many issues with which the job is involved.
“The issues and challenges we deal with are very interesting and there are enormous opportunities to represent Australia’s interests to the world. The opportunities I have had as a government vet have been beyond my expectations. The work is significant, important, varied and satisfying. Personally, I find it very fulfilling, but I am aware also of the immense responsibility.”
Follow Dr Mark Schipp on LinkedIn: @markschipp and Twitter: @MarkSchipp