On April 24th 2021, the world comes together to celebrate World Veterinary Day. In Uganda, the Uganda Veterinary Association (UVA) will celebrate it in Nakasongora district where they will vaccinate and treat animals among other activities under the theme “Veterinarian response to the COVID-19 crisis”.On World Veterinary Day, we celebrate the job that Vets do across the world to ensure the animals, people and environment are healthy prevent and treat diseases in animals. Vets are playing a pivotal role in the response to COVID19.
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and according to philanthropist billionaire, Bill Gates, the next one will even be bigger. On his organization’s website, Bill says “the unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 may not be the last pandemic. We do not know when the next one will arrive, or if it will be a flu, a coronavirus or some new disease that we have never seen before. But what we do know is that we cannot allow ourselves to be caught off guard again. The threat of the next pandemic will always be over our heads unless the world takes steps to prevent it”. So, it’s not a matter of if but when! After all, it’s cheaper to prevent than to wait and treat the disease.
Dr. Generous Behabura, the Vice President of UVA says, “It makes economic sense for vets to be involved in preventing diseases instead of waiting to treat them once they cross to humans. For example rabies in dogs, it costs only need 1$ to vaccinate a dog and prevent rabies from spreading to humans, but you need more than 100$ to treat a person bitten by a rabid dog. Here, once the symptoms show, mortality is 100%. Sad!”
According to WHO, at least 75% of emerging diseases have a zoonotic origin i.e. originate from animals to people, with animal species as their primary reservoirs. Some of the diseases include, but not limited to, the Spanish flu, H1N1, SARS, HIV, COVID-19 and Ebola. The source has been traced to germs that were originally found in animals and spread in humans. Considering the source of the next epidemic will be wildlife, vets will be critical in putting together a vibrant strategy that will equip us as a country, to be more prepared and possibly control the effects of such a disease. Drawing from the experience of Ebola, vets such as Dr. Monica Musenero (currently Senior Presidential advisor) have shown good leadership in leading the efforts to curb the effects of COVID-19 in Uganda.
Unfortunately, in Uganda, most Veterinary doctors have been thrown to the periphery in planning to manage emerging diseases. During the first phase of the COVID-19 Lockdown measures, Vets in Uganda suffered a great deal as they were not recognised as essential workers, especially by enforcers. While the President of Uganda mentioned them among essential workers, many were arrested for flaunting COVID SOPs yet they had emergencies to deal with. Uganda Veterinary Associations’ Dr Caroline Asiimwe says “Most Vets were unable to reach their clients during the lockdown phase as Vets were given few stickers to enable them reach the farmers, which conversely impacted negatively on the social-economic status of the country with many losses registered in poultry and other livestock. The Veterinarians were not facilitated with PPE yet they were among the essential service providers who were in contact with many people on a daily basis. Thus they were putting their lives and the lives of their clients at risk. Many farmers were financially constrained making it even harder for Vets to get paid for their services which also limited service delivery.
The issue is not only limited to Uganda. Dr Nicholas Muyale, the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA) president says, “Vets in Kenya don’t feel fully engaged. The contributions made were by virtue of the office or workplace where those vets were. There was no deliberate action by the government through the Ministry of Health to engage vets as frontline workers.” He added “Another challenge was the lack of recognition by the government through legal instruments. Vets were forced to lobby for them to get exemption as essential service providers in order to offer veterinary services, including meat inspection which was critical. The laws are not explicit on veterinary services as essential services. ”We are going to be part of the solution, not the problem!
The One Health concept that seeks to bring close collaboration of Vets, human doctors, plant scientists and environmentalist has not been fully implemented here in Uganda. Yet, the current risks were are faced with demand for it. The complex interconnection of humans, animals (domestic and wild) and their respective social and ecological environment is evident in the current global health challenges which warrant critical attention to be focused on integrated approaches to health protection and promotion. As the human population continues to increase across the world, considering the interconnectedness of people, animals and the environment becomes more important, especially in the control of emerging and re-emerging diseases such as zoonoses
One other challenge that Vets face is the ‘bastardisation’ of the Vet profession in Uganda. Whereas, for example, salaries for doctors were set at a minimum of 3.5M (U4 Science) Veterinary doctors remain being paid a lot less. Vets especially upcountry are deployed in sub-counties with no tools to use or means of transport. One vet who preferred anonymity because of his job told me “I am here to just earn a salary. We have no means of transport, no drugs, no tools. We get 700,000 for facilitation a quarter to move through 200 villages. That’s less than 300K per month. Honestly, what can I do?”.
From my interactions with vets, it’s clear this is repeated in most places. Many have run away from the profession over poor pay leaving drugs and chemicals, that need professional control, in the hands of untrained people. We have seen what has happened with the tick crisis. Many districts are grappling with FMD and are under quarantine. You can imagine what will happen if another zoonosis was to come from our forests or parks – disaster! Despite the knowledge and experience gained in previous epidemics, most governmental institutions are still not convinced of the veterinarian’s role in this context. Veterinarians have experience in successfully managing outbreaks of diseases, such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and rabies, in addition to controlling zoonotic pathogens in foods of animal origin. Control measures, when strictly applied to animals, have resulted in a significant reduction of zoonoses in humans.
It’s therefore important that the government and other stakeholders seriously consider putting veterinarians at the centre of preventing the next epidemic.