Using science, fighting viruses, and ensuring demand

Swine veterinarians discuss varied concerns, needs
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Dr. Lisa M. Tokach said swine veterinary medicine is influenced by research findings, feed prices, foreign animal disease outbreaks, advocacy, and importers' fat content preferences.

pigsThe veterinarian from Abilene, Kan., said in her presentation at the American Association of Swine Veterinarians Annual Meeting that basing decisions on science will help produce safe and affordable food for a growing world. But she warned that scientific evaluation and public opinion can disagree on the validity of some practices, such as the use of blunt trauma to euthanize neonatal pigs, and well-marketed but poorly performed scientific analyses can negatively affect decisions by veterinarians.

Dr. Tokach described the myriad competing influences on swine veterinary medicine during one of the opening sessions of the meeting, which occurred March 10-13 in Denver. The meeting had just more than 1,000 attendees, nearly matching a record high set three years earlier.

The public trusts veterinarians who will do what is best for animals, Dr. Tokach said, and veterinarians need to make sure they deserve that trust by minimizing animal suffering.

Influenza, PRRS among viral concerns

Dr. Amy L. Vincent, who works in the virus and prion disease research unit for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, said the health professions need more study of swine transmission of and infection with influenza viruses, including transmission to and from humans who become ill or subclinically infected. She said swine influenza viruses, for example, are known to cause subclinical infection in turkeys and undergo unknown evolution in infected birds.

Whole-genome sequencing could help identify potential determinants of influenza virus adaptation, and human and animal health could be helped through improved knowledge of influenza viruses' geographic origins, host origins, adaptation methods, and causes of virulence in humans, Dr. Vincent said.

Surveillance is a foundation for such research, and the USDA has been participating in global influenza surveillance efforts through the Offlu network of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Dr. Vincent said. But gaining unbiased, representative samples from around the world has been difficult.

Infrastructure limitations have hurt sampling efforts in some areas. Serologic surveillance has had limited value because of vaccine use, and those conducting surveillance need to know which strains are circulating locally.

The USDA has also been involved in national swine influenza surveillance, she said.

"What we hope to gain from the surveillance system is to monitor the evolution of endemic (swine influenza virus) on a national level for changes in virus prevalence—overall and in different states or regions—identifying emerging strains or subtypes, identifying when there are interspecies transmission events whether this is between humans and pigs or turkeys and pigs, and to have a base line to be able to better develop intervention strategies," Dr. Vincent said.

Swine influenza surveillance needs to succeed to justify support for comprehensive disease surveillance systems, Dr. Vincent said. The high-profile pathogen affects human health and has well-established testing procedures, and the U.S. has led the way globally in swine influenza expertise, she said.

In another presentation on swine influenza, Dr. Aaron J. Lower of Carthage Veterinary Service in Carthage, Ill., indicated the same principles used when fighting porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome infection may be needed to remove endemic swine influenza infection from farms. He said veterinarians working with swine farms, for example, need to regularly test whether replacement gilts are infected and need to close and monitor herds to reduce the risk that the virus will circulate among additional pigs.

Dr. Noel K. Garbes, a veterinarian with Bethany Swine Health Services in Sycamore, Ill., said in his presentation on regional PRRS control that living with the virus is not an option for swine producers. Leadership is needed, with engagement by local veterinarians and producers, and Dr. Garbes said that producers he has worked with in a regional project have maintained enthusiasm for ongoing efforts to control the disease, in part because they have received continuous updates, such as frequent progress reports.

Dr. Paul D. Ruen said during the AASV board of directors meeting that PRRS remains swine owners' top enemy.

Dr. Ruen, who was AASV president from early 2010 to early 2011, said in a later interview that he knew of at least two lawsuits based on allegations involving the spread of PRRS between farms. If swine owners stop sharing information on the disease out of fear of lawsuits, they could hinder progress in fighting the disease, he said.

Shared concerns about education

Discussions among AASV and AVMA leaders revealed concerns about the costs and opportunities connected with veterinary medical education. Dr. John Baker said during the last board meeting of his term on the American Association of Swine Veterinarians board of directors that veterinary students had told him one day earlier they were terrified about their debt, and they didn't know how they would transition into practice or practice ownership. He said enduring such challenges as a student seems unimaginable.

Dr. René A. Carlson, AVMA president, noted that the AVMA recently met with deans of veterinary colleges about issues facing universities and students, and she saw a gap between educators and practitioners. She said in a later interview that the gap between educators and practitioners is a complex and long-standing issue.

"As there is more and more knowledge to be learned in theory, and as there is more and more specialization and a higher standard of care expected, the education of our future colleagues seems to have evolved to the point of intense theory, less hands-on experience, and a higher standard of care than entry-level practice," she said. "More graduates are seeking internships and residencies, both for the financial reward and for increased confidence before entering the general workplace."

She said during the interview that graduating veterinarians need to be productive and have practical abilities to earn the money they need to pay off their educational debt. She said that, after 34 years as a practitioner and 15 years as an employer and owner, she knows that human relations skills are paramount to that success.

Dr. Carlson also told the board members that, while the AVMA has received some evidence that the profession could be beyond its current capacity for veterinarians, given the existing demand, the Association would need more evidence to make such an assertion. She said that, if an oversupply does exist and the profession and educators fail to balance the supply and demand based on societal needs and expectations, the marketplace will resolve the issue. She said that is a frightening prospect for the current and next generations of veterinarians, given the cost currently incurred to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Dr. Carlson said in the interview that an educational track for practitioners—separate from a track for academic or specialty veterinary medicine—might be considered.

Advocacy and influence

Dr. Randy G. Jones, outgoing AASV president, said the association has good leadership but noted that it is small in comparison with other veterinary organizations.

"To keep our voice, we need to increase our numbers, not decrease our numbers, and we need to be involved at the state level, the local level, the AVMA level," Dr. Jones said.

Dr. Jones said in a later interview that diverse sections of the veterinary profession need to retain support for the AVMA, which will be pulled in different directions. He expressed concern that AASV could lose its voice within the AVMA if AASV members aren't encouraged to be AVMA members, particularly given AASV's small size in comparison with other species-focused groups such as the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. He said veterinarians in agriculture need to have representation.

Dr. Ruen also said during the meeting that veterinarians need to ensure their stewardship of pigs is obvious and demonstrate their values on farms and to the public. They also need to show what swine veterinarians and agriculture do well, such as produce food through sustainable processes of growing feed near where pigs are raised and then using the pigs' manure as fertilizer for the next year's crops.