Professor Dr. med. vet. Jakob Zinsstag
"The protection and welfare of animals urgently needs better regulation worldwide."
Epidemiologist Jakob Zinsstag does research in the poor countries of the global south and pleads for "One Health": Human and veterinary medicine, but also nutrition and the environment should be taken into account for better health care. As an eleven-year-old, he invited a missionary to the Sunday School in Visp and wanted to know everything about the work in poor countries. Later, the second youngest of eight children, he regularly went to the Jura, where he helped out in the fields on the farms of his maternal relatives and looked after the cows in the barn. His love for animals led him to study veterinary medicine. At 25, Zinsstag worked as a fresh Dr. med. vet. in a large animal practice in Pruntrut, while his wife took up her first position as a reformed pastor.
Change is the greatest
Today, the 54-year-old is titular professor of epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) in Basel - and his life could not be more exciting. He has just come from a two-day symposium of the Collegium Helveticum on cancer research. Before that, he was in Ethiopia, where, together with local partners and his team, he wants to record and improve health care for the nomads in Ogaden, the Somali regional state in the south of the country. "We have been working there with mixed teams since the beginning - human and veterinary doctors, but also specialists in pasture management, ethnologists and other human scientists," he explains." We want to find out: What is the nutritional status of the children? Do pregnant women have access to midwives? What is the soil like, how are the animals doing?" From the results they will derive ideas on how to adapt local health services to the needs of the people.
"One Health" is the name of this approach, which takes into account human and veterinary medicine, but also food production and environmental conditions. Zinsstag is one of the most important representatives of this field of research. He has written countless articles about it, published a book and, above all, initiated many projects in very different regions of the world, in Africa, Asia and Central America. "There are many projects, but we always find a way". Besides One Health, his projects have another common denominator: they are transdisciplinary. This means that the local people are just as involved in the research as the Swiss scientists who initiated it. "For me, the academic world is a means to an end: it is not the publication that is the highest of emotions, but the change I can bring about," he says.
From Africa to Basel
Jakob Zinsstag turned his back on the veterinary practice in Pruntrut at the time to become a postdoc at the Swiss TPH. Afterwards he and his wife lived in West Africa for eight years with four little daughters, who were born between 1989 and 1996. Zinsstag was a project manager in an international research centre for sleeping sickness in Gambia, then director of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
It was Marcel Tanner who brought Zinsstag back to Switzerland. "I suggested to him that, from a veterinary point of view, we should set up a research programme for the nomadic population in Chad. Because they live so closely with their animals and because zoonotic diseases - diseases that occur in humans and animals - are a major global challenge worldwide," says the long-standing director of the Swiss TPH, obviously still enthusiastic about his move in 1998, "The idea behind it was to link veterinary and human medical services and to implement the One Health concept.
Vaccinating dogs instead of treating bites
The idea caught on. Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Zinsstag and his team discovered during their field studies that the cows of the nomadic communities had been vaccinated, but the children had hardly been vaccinated at all. "So it was obvious to set up joint vaccination services for humans and animals by sharing the cold chain and transport."
In 2004 he became a private lecturer at the University of Basel, and in 2008 he received two tempting offers: from the University of Munich as Professor of Tropical Veterinary Medicine and from the University of Zurich as Professor of Epidemiology. He turned down both. Out of loyalty to the Swiss TPH. "The working conditions here are unique." Zinsstag goes into raptures and describes with bright eyes the epiphany when he realized then that as a veterinarian he could access the knowledge of 20, 30 disciplines and carry this knowledge profitably to the developing countries.
Somehow he has become a missionary.