On April 24, 2021, the world came together to celebrate World Veterinary day. In Uganda, the Uganda Veterinary Association (UVA) celebrated it in Nakasongora district where they vaccinated and treated animals, among other activities, under the theme “Veterinarian response to the Covid-19 crisis.”
On World Veterinary day, we celebrate the job that vets do across the world to ensure the animals, people and environment are healthy, prevent and treat diseases in animals. Vets are playing a pivotal role in the response to Covid-19.
Covid-19 has turned the world upside down and, according to philanthropist billionaire Bill Gates, the next one will even be bigger. On his organization’s website, Gates says that “the unfortunate reality is that Covid-19 may not be the last pandemic.
We do not know when the next one will arrive, or if it will be a flu, a coronavirus or some new disease that we have never seen before. But what we do know is that we cannot allow ourselves to be caught off guard again. The threat of the next pandemic will always be over our heads, unless the world takes steps to prevent it.” So, it’s not a matter of if but when!
After all, it’s cheaper to prevent than to wait and treat the disease. Dr Generous Behabura, the vice president of UVA, says, “It makes economic sense for vets to be involved in preventing diseases instead of waiting to treat them once they cross to humans. For example, it costs only $1 to vaccinate a dog and prevent rabies from spreading to humans. However, you need more than $100 to treat a person bitten by a rabid dog. Here, once the symptoms show, mortality is 100 per cent. Sad!”
According to WHO, at least 75 per cent of emerging diseases have a zoonotic origin; that is, they originate from animals to people. Some of these diseases include, but not limited to, the Spanish flu, H1N1, SARS, HIV, Covid-19 and Ebola. The source has been traced to germs that were originally found in animals and spread to humans.
Considering that the next source of another epidemic will be wildlife and, vets will be critical in putting together a vibrant strategy that will equip us as a country to be more prepared and control the effects of such a disease.
Drawing from the experience of Ebola, vets such as Dr Monica Musenero (currently senior presidential advisor) have shown good leadership in leading the efforts to curb the effects of Covid-19 in Uganda.
Unfortunately, in Uganda, most veterinary doctors have been thrown to the periphery in planning for and managing emerging diseases. During the first phase of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, vets in Uganda suffered a great deal as they were not recognised as essential workers, especially by enforcers. While the president of Uganda mentioned them among essential workers, many were arrested for flaunting Covid-19 SOPs yet they had emergencies to deal with.
Uganda Veterinary Association’s Dr Caroline Asiimwe says: “Most vets were unable to reach their clients during the lockdown phase as vets were given few stickers to enable them reach the farmers, which conversely impacted negatively on the social economic status of the country with many losses registered in poultry and other livestock.
The veterinarians were not facilitated with PPE yet they were among the essential service providers who were in contact with many people on a daily basis. Thus they were putting their lives and the lives of their clients at risk.
Many farmers were financially constrained, making it even harder for vets to get payment for their services which also limited service delivery.”
The issue is not only limited to Uganda. Dr Nicholas Muyale, the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA) president, said: “Vets in Kenya don’t feel fully engaged. The above contributions were by virtue of office or workplace those vets were. There was no deliberate action by the government through ministry of health to engage vets as frontline workers.”
He added “Another challenge was the lack of recognition by the government through legal instruments. Vets were forced to lobby for them to get exemption as essential service providers in order to offer veterinary services, including meat inspection, which was critical. The laws are not explicit on veterinary services as essential services.”
We are going to be part of the solution, not the problem! The one-health concept that seeks to bring close collaboration of vets, human doctors, plant scientists and environmentalists has not been fully implemented here in Uganda.
Yet, the current risks are faced with demand for it. The complex interconnection of humans, animals (domestic and wild) and their respective social and ecological environment is evident in the current global health challenges, which warrant critical attention to be focused on integrated approaches to health protection and promotion.
As the human population continues to increase across the world, considering the interconnectedness of people, animals and the environment becomes more important, especially in the control of emerging and re-emerging diseases such as zoonoses.
One other challenge that vets face is the ‘bastardisation’ of the vet profession in Uganda. Whereas, for example, salaries for doctors were set at a minimum of Shs 3.5 million (U4 Science), veterinary doctors are paid a lot less.
Vets, especially those that are upcountry, are deployed in sub-counties with no tools to use or means of transport. One vet who preferred anonymity because of his job told me: “I am here to just earn a salary. We have no means of transport, no drugs, no tools. We get Shs 700,000 for facilitation each quarter to move through 200 villages. That’s less than Shs 300,000 per month. Honestly, what can I do?”
From my interactions with vets, it is clear this is repeated in most places. Many have run away from the profession over poor pay, leaving drugs and chemicals that need professional control, in the hands of untrained people. We have seen what has happened with the tick crisis. Many districts are grappling with FMD and are under quarantine. You can imagine what will happen if another zoonosis was to come from our forests or parks!
Despite the knowledge and experience gained in previous epidemics, most governmental institutions are still not convinced of the veterinarian’s role in this context. Veterinarians have experience in successfully managing outbreaks of diseases, such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and rabies, in addition to controlling zoonotic pathogens in foods of animal origin.
Control measures, when strictly applied to animals, have resulted in a significant reduction of zoonoses in humans. It is, therefore, important that government and other stakeholders, seriously consider putting veterinarians at the centre of preventing the next epidemic.
The writer is a vet.