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.
The American Veterinary Medical Association, a group with about 6,200 food animal vets, estimates the shortage at a relatively small 4%. But health officials say even the small gap increases the potential for diseases to go undetected.
“It’s not like the other 96% can pick up the slack,” said Lyle Vogel, DVM, MPH, director of the animal welfare division at the association, which used surveys to estimate the shortage. “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 kind of weakening the whole system,” Schoen said. “The veterinarian is the front line.”
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.