Shortage of Farm Vets May Increase Disease Risk

US - Public health experts are concerned that a shortage of farm animal veterinarians could lead to disease outbreaks, potentially endangering human health and risking the nation's food supply.
calendar icon 1 May 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

The American Veterinary Medical Association, a group with about 6,200 food animal vets, estimates the shortage at 4%, small but not insignificant say health officials.

"It's not like the other 96% can pick up the slack," said Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the animal welfare division at the AVMA. "Because of the distances and workload of the remaining veterinarians they just can't fill in that shortage."

Concerns have centered on more than 800 diseases that can spread from animals to humans, such as salmonella and E. coli. Experts also fear an inability to quickly diagnose conditions like foot and mouth disease and avian flu, said Robin Schoen, director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're weakening the whole system becasue the veterinarian is the front line," said Mr Schoen.

With fewer veterinarians, more duties are falling to farmers and ranchers, who often vaccinate animals, diagnose illnesses and administer antibiotics. Vets typically offer some training and do-it-yourself medicine can cut costs, but some worry that the long-term result will be an inability to detect diseases early or address outbreaks, especially in remote areas.

Experts said the veterinarian shortage could lead to several troubling scenarios:

  • Salmonella in an untreated dairy herd could be spread by workers who come into contact with feces. Similarly, people who defeather or slaughter chickens infected with a certain strain of avian flu could get others sick.

  • Diseases like anthrax are hard to detect and spread quickly, so a farmer likely wouldn't notice an illness until many animals were sick, potentially wiping out a whole herd.

  • Foot and mouth disease could enter the United States through imported animals or meat. Because the disease can spread rapidly by air, it could hit multiple producers if not detected, leading to a regional outbreak.

The shortage is blamed on fewer graduates coming out of veterinary schools, Many opt for the regular hours and assumed better pay of small animal medicine, though surveys indicate the pay difference is largely unfounded.

Source: AgricultureOnline

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