Military veterinarians continue health and safety projects in Iraq

Training and infrastructure work aimed at improving agricultural industry
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U.S. military veterinarians are restoring Iraq's veterinary diagnostic laboratories, monitoring zoonotic diseases, and teaching Iraqis how to improve food safety, procurement, and storage.

They are working with Iraqi veterinarians and police so Iraqis can have and care for their own police dogs. They help rebuild agricultural and veterinary infrastructure that crumbled after Saddam Hussein's government fell.

Lt. Col. Anthony Bostick, the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps consultant and commander of the 43rd Medical Detachment Veterinary Service, said food safety and care for military dogs remain among routine duties for the 10 or 15 military veterinarians in the country, but the soldiers are also involved in a wide range of domestic projects.

Maj. Freddie Zink, a U.S. Army veterinarian (see story), said he works with Iraqis on issues related to poultry, bees, and fish, and he teaches them about current veterinary practices and pharmaceuticals. He and other military veterinarians are now working to improve safety and health through education, creation of sanitary slaughter systems, and restoration of veterinary diagnostic laboratories.

Maj. Zink said there's no way for Iraqi veterinarians to back up their findings without veterinary laboratories. "You'll have five different Iraqis making five different diagnoses," he said.

Recovery of Iraq's agricultural industry is hampered by the flight of many of Iraq's veterinarians since the start of the war and the closing of all but a couple of Iraq's veterinary schools, Maj. Zink said.

"Most all of the veterinarians with advanced degrees have left the country," Maj. Zink said. "Some of them were killed."

About 9,000 Iraqi veterinarians are unemployed, most of them former government employees, Lt. Col. Bostick said. Army veterinarians have trained about 60 Iraqi veterinarians and 30 Iraqis of other professions so far, educating them on matters of zoonotic diseases such as avian influenza, poultry diseases, artificial insemination, and herd health management.

The veterinary corps' most expensive project involves attempts to eradicate rabies in the country. The U.S. military is training Iraqi veterinarians to catch, sterilize, vaccinate, deworm, microchip, and release animals such as dogs, cats, foxes, jackals, hyenas, and sand cats.

The major said U.S. Army veterinarians are teaching Iraqi veterinarians to perform direct rapid immunohistochemistry tests to detect rabies. Lt. Col. Bostick said the Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are involved in the training efforts, and rabies tests have found infections in dogs—particularly strays, cattle, a jackal, and a mongoose.

The U.S. Army Veterinary Service is also working to build Iraq's cattle industry to its prewar size, increase the goat population, and combat diseases such as brucellosis, echinococcosis, tuberculosis, and foot-and-mouth disease. U.S. technical experts are working with Iraqis to eradicate screwworms.

U.S. veterinarians also provide emergency surgical and intensive care for local Iraqi police dogs in an animal hospital at Joint Base Balad, Lt. Col. Bostick said.

The United States government has given scholarships for Iraqi veterinarians to train in the U.S. and teach others at diagnostic laboratories in Irbil when they return, Maj. Zink said.

"Highly pathogenic avian influenza is endemic over here, as well as foot-and-mouth disease," Maj. Zink said. "So it's very important that we can make those proper diagnoses."

Maj. Zink said U.S. forces are trying to get mobile slaughterhouses and large refrigerated trucks to the Iraqis to reduce the number of animals slaughtered on the ground and without refrigeration for the meat.

The U.S. military has also worked with Iraq's government to help identify safe sources of food for the Iraqi military. Lt. Col. Bostick said U.S. forces have reduced disease outbreaks through work in Iraqi army dining facilities.

The U.S. military hasn't bought food from Iraq in previous years but recently approved the purchase of food from two local sources. The lieutenant colonel declined to say what food the U.S. would buy, citing the risk someone could try to contaminate the food.

"It's a big step in the right direction, working with the Iraqi people, and building good will and trust," Lt. Col. Bostick said.

Military veterinarians have also reduced waste of imported food caused by high heat and poor storage, Lt. Col. Bostick said.

"We implemented plans to improve the storage of rations, and we're saving a lot of money for the government and for taxpayers of the United States," Lt. Col. Bostick said.

Maj. Zink said his work doesn't offer immediate gratification, but he thinks the lessons he taught are being spread to other farms in the country.

He said, "In the near term and long term, yes, I think I've made a huge difference in the people I've worked with."