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05-03-2008 - Shortage of vets most troubling in rural areas

Shortage of vets most troubling in rural areas

Gregory Hammer thinks the nation is leaving key watch posts unguarded.

“We are at a critical shortage of veterinarians in this country,” Hammer, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said during a visit to Kansas City last week.

What do veterinarians have to do with defending the country?

They’re the first line of defense for rapidly emerging animal diseases that can also affect people.

These zoonotic diseases include avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is known more commonly as mad cow disease.

Hammer and Ron DeHaven, executive vice president of the veterinary association, were the keynote presenters at a new series of events organized by the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor.

The corridor is a region that stretches roughly from Manhattan, Kan., to Columbia, Mo., and contains more than 100 animal health industry companies.

The leaders of the initiative increasingly are focusing on new actions that would strengthen the region’s competitive advantage. Possibilities include stimulating research and development partnerships between companies and universities or work force development efforts.

“We want to capitalize on the collaboration we have here,” said Joerg Ohle, president and general manager of Bayer Animal Health and a leader of the animal health corridor initiative.

Kansas and Missouri leaders have recognized the crisis that Hammer described last week.

Both states are pressing forward with efforts to provide incentives to veterinary school students who agree to practice in rural areas.

These sorts of approaches might prove to be effective, but many have been implemented so recently that it is too early to make an assessment, Hammer said.

The veterinary association is urging passage and funding for a federal initiative that would help repay the loans of vet school graduates who agree to work in underserved areas such as food supply veterinarians.

A major contributor to the shortage is that students are graduating from veterinary school with an average of $106,000 in debt.

Starting salaries are averaging $55,000 and often are lower in rural areas.

“It is making it very difficult for veterinarians who would like to go into rural practice,” Hammer said. “They just can’t do it and pay back the debt.”

The veterinary association has compiled stark statistics that make the case why this is a problem deserving of urgent attention.

County-by-county maps have identified numerous areas, including multiple sites in Missouri and Kansas, that are home to more than 25,000 food-supply animals and zero veterinarians.

“That’s a little scary,” Hammer said. “That’s a lot of animals not being served by veterinarians.”

Before joining the association, DeHaven was a top government regulator who dealt with animal health issues. The lines increasingly are blurring between animal and human health, he said.

More work is needed to enhance coordination between animal health experts and public health agencies, he said.

The detection a few years ago of beef that was tainted with mad cow disease shows how effective these systems can be. Restrictions on beef imports and the feed that could be given to animals helped limit the situation from becoming a widespread outbreak, he said.

“Ultimately, it was animal health safeguards that protected the public health,” DeHaven said.

To reach Jason Gertzen, call 816-234-4899 or send e-mail to

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