Veterinarian Shortage Raises Public Health Concerns

US - An increasing shortage of farm animal veterinarians is raising concerns among public health experts that the trend could lead to disease outbreaks, potentially endangering human health and risking the nation's food supply.
calendar icon 30 April 2007
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The American Veterinary Medical Association, a group with roughly 6,200 food animal vets, estimates the shortage at a relatively small 4 percent. But health officials said even the small gap worsens the potential for pockets of undetected disease, and they think the problem will worsen as fewer vets graduate from universities and demand increases. "It's not like the other 96 percent can pick up the slack," said Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the animal welfare division at the association, which used surveys to estimate the shortage. "Because of the distances and workload of the remaining veterinarians they just can't fill in that shortage."

Concerns have focused on more than 800 diseases that can spread from animals to humans, such as salmonella and E. coli. Experts also fear an inability to quickly diagnose conditions like foot and mouth disease and avian flu, said Robin Schoen, director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're kind of weakening the whole system," Schoen said. "The veterinarian is the front line."

With fewer veterinarians, more duties are falling to farmers and ranchers, who often vaccinate animals, diagnose illnesses and administer antibiotics. Vets typically offer some training, and do-it-yourself medicine can cut costs, but some worry that the long-term result will be an inability to detect diseases early or address outbreaks, especially in remote areas.

Experts said the veterinarian shortage could lead to myriad scenario, such as:
  • Salmonella in an untreated dairy herd could be spread by workers, who could come into contact with feces. Similarly, people who defeather or slaughter chickens infected with a certain strain of avian flu could get others sick.
  • Diseases like anthrax are hard to detect and spread quickly, so a farmer likely wouldn't notice an illness until many animals were sick, potentially wiping out a whole herd.
  • Foot and mouth disease doesn't now exist in the United States but could enter through imported animals or meat. Because the diseases can spread rapidly by air, it could hit multiple producers if not detected, leading to a regional outbreak

Source: Quad-Cities Online

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