Building bridges

Published on November 01, 2004
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More than 50 veterinary leaders overcame a host of logistic, financial, and cultural obstacles, as well as threats to their personal safety, to gather in Kuwait City, Sept. 21-23, for a meeting aimed at creating international networks and support for Afghanistan's and Iraq's efforts to rebuild their veterinary infrastructure.

The International Veterinary Conference was planned and held by the Humanitarian Operations Center in Kuwait—a joint operation of the Kuwaiti government and U.S. military that provides humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq—and U.S. Army Veterinary Corps staff. Col. Vic Adamson, the director of the Humanitarian Operations Center; Maj. Caroline Toffoli, a veterinarian with the Army's 8th Medical Brigade; and Col. Paul Schmidt, the theater veterinarian, secured funding and support, and made the travel arrangements for the meeting.

Representatives from the AVMA, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army, and a nongovernmental aid organization joined high-ranking representatives of Kuwaiti, Afghan, and Iraqi veterinary schools, governments, and veterinary and agricultural organizations for the groundbreaking meeting. The USDA and several Kuwaiti companies helped provide financial support for the meeting, as did Hill's Pet Nutrition.

Meeting attendees shared information about their countries' respective veterinary infrastructure and discussed ways U.S. veterinary organizations can support the Iraqi and Afghan efforts to rebuild. They also addressed cultural differences between the countries. Attendees were given a copy of participant Dr. David M. Sherman's book "Tending Animals in the Global Village." The book addresses the cultural issues that influence the practice of international veterinary medicine.

"It was really a good example of a partnership," said Dr. Linda L. Logan, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service International Services' attaché for North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, and the Near East—including Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Each partner brought his or her special abilities and talents to the table."

The meeting also provided opportunities for U.S. Army veterinarians who are doing humanitarian aid work in the two countries to develop contacts with the USDA and U.S. veterinary organizations, said Col. Jack Fournier, the chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

Dr. Logan also found the meeting to be a valuable opportunity to build connections. Dr. Logan is currently setting up a new office for APHIS in Cairo, and said the contacts will be important to her work helping countries in the region improve their animal health infrastructure and facilitating international trade.

According to meeting organizers and participants, the veterinary infrastructure in both countries has been severely damaged by war and neglect. As a result of this damage, animal diseases are spreading in Iraq and Afghanistan, threatening the food supply of their citizens and neighboring countries, said Dr. Bennie I. Osburn, the dean of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. But veterinarians in those countries are determined to rebuild their infrastructure and strengthen their profession, and meeting attendees have vowed to help.

"It's a major undertaking, but we think it's very important to help the profession on a global scale," Dean Osburn said. "It's also important to bring those diseases under control."

In Afghanistan, there is little physical infrastructure left to support veterinary schools and veterinary practices. Security is also a concern in some parts of the country.

"They need just about everything, from the construction of new buildings for veterinary schools, to equipment and supplies, and help with educational development," Col. Fournier said.

The ranks of veterinarians in Afghanistan have dwindled over the past 25 years. Many who had been working for the Russian government were forced to flee Afghanistan after the civil war. And few have been trained since.

"Afghanistan has too few veterinarians, and their training has not kept pace with the rest of the world," said Col. Clifford Walker, an Army veterinarian and one of the event's organizers.

These shortages have left the country without reliable veterinary services and have allowed the spread of many animal diseases and conditions, including anthrax, enterotoxemia, sheep pox, blackleg, and hemorrhagic septicemia.

Dr. Sherman, who is on leave from his position as the state veterinarian of Massachusetts and is serving as the country program director for the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan, a nongovernmental aid organization, said it is vital to the country's future to rebuild its veterinary capacity.

"Animals continue to play a vital, core role in the lives of Afghans. Eighty-five percent of the population depend on livestock, either directly or indirectly, for their livelihood," Dr. Sherman said. "Animal health is extremely important, and the veterinary profession has a key role to play in restoring civil society to Afghanistan and bringing food security and economic well-being to its people."

Dr. Sherman is helping to administer a $12 million project funded by U.S. Agency for International Development aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan's veterinary capacity, focusing on clinical veterinary services. The Afghan government is working simultaneously to rebuild government veterinary services to address national issues, such as controlling foot-and-mouth disease. Dr. Sherman is working with the Afghan Veterinary Association on the project.

Dr. Sherman emphasized the importance of support from the U.S. veterinary profession.

"Afghan veterinarians are counting on moral and material support from their American colleagues to restore the dignity of their profession and their service to the Afghan people."

Despite the many challenges they face, the Afghan veterinarians are focused on building a strong profession and finding ways to provide veterinary services.

"The Afghan people really, really have a great spirit, and they want to do good," said Dr. James E. Nave, a former AVMA president and the AVMA globalization agent for education and licensure. "You have to admire that."

The Afghan veterinarians also are looking for solutions to their lack of reliable utilities, and limited funds for transportation to reach agricultural areas. They have requested bicycles, motorcycles, and solar-powered coolers that they can use to transport vaccines, Col. Walker said.

Neglect and isolation during Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq and the looting of its veterinary schools following the overthrow of Saddam weakened Iraq's once strong veterinary profession, according to meeting participants. But with more financial resources and remaining infrastructure than Afghanistan, the ability of the Iraqis to strengthen and rebuild their veterinary profession hinges on the security situation there improving, meeting participants said.

Currently, many Iraqi veterinarians are unemployed or underemployed, and there is ongoing debate about how best to get them back to work—whether as government employees or private practitioners, Col. Walker said. Getting those veterinarians back to work depends largely on the overall economy in Iraq. Also, weapons inspectors shut down Iraq's vaccine production facility, and FMD has since become rampant, Col. Walker said.

Colonel Schmidt, the theater veterinarian in Kuwait who helped organize the event, said the meeting helped the Iraqis evaluate their plans for rebuilding and identify weaknesses.

Dr. Nave explained that Iraq is rich in agriculture as well as oil, but needs to build stronger professional organizations.

"It seems there's a lot of potential there," Dr. Nave said.

Colonel Schmidt said private-sector investment will also be needed to help replace equipment that was looted from Iraq's veterinary schools and government facilities.

"It's going to take more than what the military can do," Col. Schmidt said.

Education, international networks key
For veterinarians in both countries, strengthening their veterinary education systems and reconnecting them to the international veterinary community is key to rebuilding their veterinary capacity. It is also an area where the U.S. veterinary profession can provide the most immediate help.

"They are starving for knowledge—journals, literature," Dr. Nave said.

Officials from the AVMA and AAVMC will be sending complimentary copies of their scientific journals to Afghan and Iraqi veterinary colleges to help fill that need.

Event participants are organizing an effort to bring some Afghan and Iraqi veterinarians to the World Veterinary Congress, which is being held July 16-20, 2005, in conjunction with the AVMA Annual Convention in Minneapolis. The AVMA Convention Management and Program Committee has agreed to waive registration fees for those veterinarians.

Participants formed task forces to address the needs of each country, and organizers held a follow-up teleconference on Oct. 12.

Other goals set by meeting attendees include the following:

  • Arranging postgraduate opportunities for faculty from the veterinary schools in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Coordinating the donation of supplies and equipment
  • Maintaining ongoing communication between participants

Dean Osburn said he hopes the effort will educate veterinarians about the needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's important that we understand the humanitarian needs of the people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the role we can play to get them back on their feet," he said.

For more information on how to support the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, contact Dr. Paula Cowen at paula [dot] l [dot] cowenataphis [dot] usda [dot] gov (paula[dot]l[dot]cowen[at]aphis[dot]usda[dot]gov).