A valuable skill for children living in Todos Santos, Guatemala, is knowing how to stand up like a tree, or crouch down like a rock.The children could avoid getting rabies from dog bites by applying that knowledge, said Dr. Scarlett Magda, a Sag Harbor
resident who spends her summers working at the South Fork Animal Hospital in Wainscott, and who founded the nonprofit organization Veterinarians International last year.
The organization is based on the principle that humans and animals are interconnected species, and that for people to be healthy, animals must be, too.
Dr. Magda will speak about her experiences and the importance of understanding the relationship between animals and humans, and that relationship’s effect on global health, at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton on Saturday.
The veterinarian first became interested in international medicine while she was studying at Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. While in school, she spearheaded a project in Thailand and India that looked at the wounds elephants suffer from wearing saddles. Right then and there, it occurred to her that animals and humans face problems from one another.
She pursued this new understanding as her career with great energy, according to Dr. Mark S. Davis at the South Fork Animal Hospital. “She’s great,” he said. “I really have to admire her energy—it’s the big thing.”
The rabies problem in Todos Santos—a high-elevation, traditional Mayan community, where agriculture is the means of sustenance—is precipitated mainly by a lack of education. Many of the children do not know better and throw rocks at the dogs, Dr. Magda said. In return, the dogs become aggressive.
“They don’t know what to do when the dogs attack them, and so we do a lot of education of humane treatment of dogs, and teach them to walk them on leashes,” Dr. Magda explained, adding that the program is a partnership with the Global Alliance for Animals and People.
Vets International has also focused on providing rabies vaccines to the people of Todos Santos, and many have learned about the seriousness of the disease and the dangers it poses, Dr. Magda said. She noted that the next step for the organization will be to employ a Guatemalan community worker to be their full-time educator in Todos Santos. A more regular presence is needed, Dr. Magda said, in order to really facilitate change: in international medicine, there must be a solid partnership between those who are on the ground in different geographical areas.
The organization is important because it fills a gap, Dr. Magda explained of why she founded it. “I wanted to link the society in a bigger way and get this message of zoonotic diseases out there,” she said.
Vets International’s mission is to do just that and help organizations that are already in place—for example, by sending public health experts to them and training local vets to be more effective, as well as by providing medical resources and financial support.
“I realized there wasn’t an organization who had the model that myself and founding members wanted to implement: an umbrella organization that supports existing groups on the ground that are very effective with what they do and very respected,” she said.
Dr. Magda explained that simple statistics prove the importance of the relationship between animals and humans: the Centers for Disease Control believes that roughly 75 percent of diseases that have recently emerged come from animals, as well as a total of 60 percent of all human diseases.
“Once you start working with animals, you dissect these relationships that are occurring within their life form, but also how the environment plays a role in transmitting those diseases where humans are at the interface of it,” Dr. Magda said. “In the middle of that web—that is the foundation of the organization.”
Another project that Dr. Magda’s organization has undertaken is the creation of a mobile elephant clinic that provides veterinarian care.
The clinic is visualized as a vehicle that drives to different elephant camps and provides veterinary services to the animals in need, as there are only two veterinary clinics in the entire north of Thailand that care for sick elephants. It would be based in Sukhothai, also in the north, at the Boons Lott’s elephant sanctuary.
The program is about 65 percent on its way to being a reality; all that is needed is for a vehicle to be donated.
“This work is not just helping communities across the globe, but it’s coming back to us,” Dr. Magda said. “It is important for people to realize that we live in a global community, and disease knows no borders.”
Dr. Magda’s talk will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are free for SOFO members. For non-members, adult and children’s tickets cost $7 and $5, respectively. For more information, call: (631) 537-9735.