Hope in Haiti

Head veterinarian details nation's struggles, hopes
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Despite substantial challenges to maintaining the animal health infrastructure in Haiti, particularly following the devastating earthquake Jan. 12, the country's head veterinarian remains hopeful.

Haitian girl with her dog
A Haitian girl stands with her dog next to a mobile veterinary clinic run by the Animal Relief Coalition for Haiti.

Dr. Max Millien, director of animal health with Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, said assistance from foreign agencies will help the country improve its animal health infrastructure.

He spoke at the Global Opportunities in One Health workshop Aug. 1 during the AVMA Annual Convention in Atlanta. In an interview with JAVMA News he said the country has long struggled with animal health issues, particularly disease outbreaks.

In 1995, the number of dogs and cats vaccinated against rabies totaled only 30,000 among the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats that populate the country. A renewed focus on preventing the transmission of rabies began in 2007, a year after 29 human deaths resulting from rabies were reported.

The ministry developed the Animal Health Groups program, which has a presence in all 565 rural sections of the country. Each group constitutes about 25 animal producers and two or three veterinary agents who have taken a seven-week training course that teaches them about subjects such as animal pathology and epidemiology.

More than 90 percent of meat from Haiti comes from backyard animal production.

"They received skills to do vaccinations and give help in epidemiological assistance. Through this we have realized a campaign of vaccination," Dr. Millien said.

This year the agriculture ministry has been able to vaccinate 455,000 dogs and cats against rabies, yet success has been tempered by the fact that more than 40 people have contracted the disease.

"With the destruction of houses, we have a lot of dogs and cats in the streets. That's why, after the earthquake, we've had more people bitten, and that's why people thought there was an increase in rabies," Dr. Millien explained.

An additional emerging risk to Haitian animal health is Teschen disease, which is caused by a virulent variant of porcine enterovirus serotype 1. It began spreading among pigs in February 2009 and has ravaged the country ever since. Some areas have seen 25 percent mortality rates and 40 percent morbidity rates.

A horse gets a vaccine
More volunteer work at the ARCH clinic.

Haiti is in dire need of laboratories to produce a vaccine against Teschen disease; however, there is a lack of interest in producing such a vaccine because most countries don't have the disease, and laboratories wouldn't make much money from its manufacture, Dr. Millien said.

What little animal health infrastructure existed before the beginning of this year was nearly shattered following the natural disaster. A public veterinary clinic, laboratory, quarantine posts, and a school for veterinary technicians no longer stand as a result of the earthquake. It also caused many veterinarians and veterinary technicians to leave the country and caused a shortage of veterinary drugs and equipment for those who remained.

Dr. Ian Robinson, emergency relief director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the people suffered more because they were in the collapsed buildings rather than the animals, which were mostly outside. Hence, care of animals was low on the agenda. It also became immediately apparent that any one group wouldn't be able to do anything meaningful in those circumstances, Dr. Robinson told workshop attendees, so foreign aid workers agreed to form the Animal Relief Coalition for Haiti, which now comprises more than 20 organizations, including the IFAW, AVMA, and American Veterinary Medical Foundation. To date, the Foundation and its partners have contributed $50,000 to ARCH, with potential for more giving before the year's end.

Dr. Millien
Dr. Max Millien, Haitian director of animal health, said every year his country's problems become more and more complicated.

Dr. Millien considers the earthquake not as a setback but as an opportunity to improve the country's veterinary infrastructure. He also finds hope in the sort of collaboration happening between the Ministry of Agriculture and ARCH.

"In the past, every institution came and did what it wanted. It was not very good," Dr. Millien said. "Every institution recognizes now that Haiti's Veterinary Services is the institution that has to take the leadership role and realizes (that) coordination is important."

Dr. Millien and his staff already had strong views and ideas about the way the recovery could best be helped, Dr. Robinson explained, so ARCH and Haiti's Veterinary Services joined forces to produce a plan and help with recovery efforts at a cost of approximately $1 million.

Together, they will be instituting use of mobile veterinary clinics, training Haitian veterinarians and veterinary health workers to address welfare problems, restoring appropriate vaccine storage conditions to allow for effective vaccination campaigns, conducting a dog population study to better inform coalition work, promoting local interest in animal welfare, and repairing laboratory infrastructure ruined during the earthquake.

Still, Haiti has a long road ahead in terms of providing adequate animal health services. Five years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture had only six veterinarians for the entire country. To remedy the situation, the Haitian government approached the Cuban government to form an agreement whereby Haiti would send students to Cuba for veterinary training. Since then, about 69 students have been trained and about 60 are working for the agriculture ministry today, Dr. Millien noted.