Doing what is best for pigs

Published on April 12, 2017
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Dr. Alejandro “Alex” Ramirez said swine veterinarians remind one another that doing what is best for pigs is their top priority.

Dr. Ramirez
Dr. Alejandro “Alex” Ramirez

“Are we doing this because we have interest or it’s a way that we can generate more income, or are we trying to do this to really improve the health and welfare of the pig?” he said. “And I think our profession’s very good about reminding ourselves that we do care for the animals.”

In February, Dr. Ramirez, an associate professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, started his one-year term as president of the American Association of Swine Practitioners. He wants to continue the AASV’s efforts to support veterinarians in practice through guidance on decisions that affect the health and care of pigs, which are under threat from endemic, emerging, and foreign diseases.

By advocating a global perspective, he thinks the AASV can help improve pigs’ health. Ignorance about swine health problems in other countries, such as China and Russia, is no longer acceptable.

“Whatever happens internationally will come and impact us at some time,” he said.

Whatever happens internationally will come and impact us at some time.

Dr. Alejandro “Alex” Ramirez, president, American Association of Swine Practitioners

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome remains a challenge. This viral disease that is deadly for pigs has cost the pork industry billions of dollars since emerging in the U.S. during the late 1980s. Veterinarians are monitoring other threats, such as porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which was discovered in April 2013 and had killed an estimated 7 million pigs by April 2014. PED is believed to have emerged through importation of contaminated feed from China.

With such diseases, Dr. Ramirez said, “Our concern has been, once they get in, can we detect them quick enough before they spread?”

A foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would have serious animal health and trade implications, he said, noting that one-quarter of U.S. pork is exported.

While veterinarians address those challenges, they also endure higher scrutiny of their medication decisions. Since January, veterinarians have gained oversight of the use of feed- and water-administered antimicrobials that are in drug classes considered by the Food and Drug Administration to be important for human medicine.

That oversight comes through elimination of over-the-counter access to drugs that had accounted for about 60 percent of the volume, by weight, of all antimicrobials administered to livestock during 2015, according to the most recent drug sales data available from the FDA. Those drugs now are available through veterinary feed directives or prescriptions. 

“I think we’re going to continue doing the right things, but the true implication is now we have to spend more time documenting that process,” Dr. Ramirez said. 

That will include keeping records that will help regulatory agents understand a veterinarian’s decisions.

“With our current regulations in the U.S., I think veterinarians are still able to focus on the prevention and treatment of diseases, and I think those are big areas for us that help minimize any of the health consequences,” he said.

Dr. Ramirez also expressed concern that the ability to maintain trade is less certain under the current federal administration. Restrictions, whether imposed by the U.S. or by other countries in retaliation, could upset the trade balance and create substantial problems, he said.

The AASV will voice opinions about the consequences of decisions affecting trade, as the financial implications could affect pig health and welfare, he said.

Dr. Ramirez grew up in Mexico as a dual citizen, a city boy in Guadalajara whose mother was from Iowa, where his parents met during his father’s medical residency. His father was a physician, and his mother, a nurse.

In Mexico, he particularly enjoyed being around livestock during visits to his uncle’s farm, a rustic home with about 200 cattle, one or two sows, and no electricity. He came to the U.S. to attend Iowa State University as an undergraduate in the animal science program and stayed on as a veterinary student until graduation in 1993.

Over the course of 11 years of practice in northwest Iowa, Dr. Ramirez shifted his focus from cattle to swine. His practice was going well, and he had three children between 6 months and 6 years old, when he “literally woke up and said, ‘You know, I was always interested in teaching.’”

He returned to ISU to earn his Master of Public Health degree, and he began working in the swine health education program while earning the doctorate he would complete in 2011.

“Coming back to become a student and a faculty member at the university, that passion, that interest in swine, continued to grow, and I had more opportunities to be involved with the AASV,” he said.

The AASV’s newly installed officers are Drs. Nathan Winkelman, vice president; C. Scanlon Daniels, president-elect; George Charbonneau, immediate past president; and Alejandro “Alex” Ramirez, president.

His passion for the veterinary profession, for swine medicine, and for working with students fueled his desire to participate in the AASV, as did the camaraderie he felt from the shared goals within the organization. 

“I felt that I could be part of a great association, and, hopefully, have some impact,” he said.

Dr. Ramirez became president during the AASV’s annual meeting, which this year ran from Feb. 25-28 in Denver. His fellow officers for the year are Drs. C. Scanlon Daniels, Dalhart, Texas, president-elect; Nathan Winkelman, Sartell, Minnesota, vice president; and George Charbonneau, White Lake, Ontario, immediate past president.