WASHINGTON – The nation’s top public health official on Saturday urged veterinarians to work more closely with human health researchers to curb contagious diseases.

“Thirteen out of the last 14 new infectious diseases that have affected people have arisen from animals,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We need a health system that can do fast science, fast detection . . . fast and effective communication, and a very, very important piece of this fast system is the alert veterinarian,” she told the American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention here.

Because animals share our food and water supply and have greater contact with the elements, their sicknesses can provide an early alert to environmental problems, human disease – and even bioterrorist attacks.

Veterinarians and public health doctors know that, but they’re just beginning to work together, according to Gerberding.

“Between West Nile virus and influenza (bird flu), the veterinarians and the human epidemiologists have been much more connected,” she said.

Had specialists in animal and human disease collaborated right off the bat when West Nile first appeared in the U.S. during the summer of 1999, she added, the virus might have been identified faster.

Instead, animal and human pathologists carried out separate investigations into a rash of sick people and birds infected by West Nile, which is transmitted by mosquitoes.

In a more recent animal-human health interaction, pet food contaminants that killed a small number of animals moved rapidly into the human food chain. Although nobody died, the need for collaboration between vets and public health doctors was again clear and urgent.

“We’re in a situation now where we’re talking about health teams of physicians and veterinarians and nurses,” said H. Leon Thacker, director of the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University in Indiana.

“If one of these foreign diseases gets into the country, the effect that it has is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes us to find it,” he warned.

To improve collaboration between animal and human medical communities, Gerberding said, government agencies are hiring more veterinarians for public health jobs and adding veterinary laboratories to a nationwide electronic network.

The American Veterinary Medical Association is bringing together veterinarians, physicians, ecological researchers and government officials to the same end, said Roger Mahr, president of the association. Their first report is due next spring.