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Veterinarians Without Borders takes stock in Liberia

Education, rabies vaccinations at the top of their list


September 8, 2009
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service


Drs. Arlene Gardsbane and Beth Miller set out for Liberia this summer not quite knowing what they’d find in the country of 3 million people with no licensed veterinarians.

They knew they’d encounter severe need, given that the African country is getting over 14 years of civil war and conflict. They’d heard that Liberians eat dogs and cats, so guessed that the people didn’t have emotional attachments to their animals.

What the two American veterinarians from Veterinarians Without Borders learned from their sojourn of more than two weeks confirmed and contradicted their expectations.

Certainly it was true that the deprivation was great. “I’ve never been to a country so starkly destroyed,” said Miller, a large-animal veterinarian and consultant in Arkansas who, in the past, traveled widely in Africa for Heifer Project International.

“A lot of infrastructure that was there before isn’t there,” Miller said. She found that electricity was spotty, refrigeration spottier still, and running water was rare, never mind hot water.

Miller and Gardsbane’s findings confirmed their sense that Liberia was a worthy first big international project for the recently formed American version of Veterinarians Without Borders. Although they were not the only visiting foreign veterinarians there hoping to help, “We really felt like this was a place where American vets could make a huge difference,” Miller said. “There were no practicing licensed veterinarians. So everyone (working in animal health) asked for training.”

One problem in urgent need of attention is rabies. Miller said government statistics show six to 12 cases of rabies in humans per quarter, all traced to dog bites. (By comparison, one case of human rabies was reported in the United States in all of 2007.) Miller said the Liberian numbers surely underscore the magnitude of the problem because its government counts only the people who die of rabies while in a hospital.

“Most of the country can’t afford to go to a hospital or can’t afford to stay there, so they go home to die,” she noted.

Knowing in advance about the rabies issue, Gardsbane, a small-animal practitioner in Maryland, packed for the trip 350 doses of rabies vaccine donated by her local Merial distributor. After she and Miller arrived in mid-July, the Ministry of Agriculture in the capital Monrovia arranged quickly for a rabies clinic. It was then that Gardsbane began to see that Liberians do, in fact, care about their pets.

To her amazement, 101 dogs and one cat showed up at the clinic with little advance notice.

“I did a 10-minute radio interview live one day to announce we were doing it,” Gardsbane said. “I don’t think I even gave people the time. That’s how last-minute it was.”

She came away better understanding the complicated relationship between Liberians and their pets. “First off, people care about their dogs,” she said. While it’s true that dogs and cats are also food, she said, “They still care about them. They had very cute names. Poor No Friend was a very popular name.”

At the same time, Gardsbane said, the animals are not well cared for, at least not by American standards. “There was only a little intentional feeding (of the pets),” she said. “Most exist on garbage and rats.”

Some dogs were kept behind fences, while others roamed freely. It was hard to tell whether the roaming dogs were stray or belonged to someone. “The only time I saw dogs on leashes was for our rabies clinic,” Gardsbane said. “However, people seemed to have a nice variety of collars and leashes that they were using.”

With no local veterinarians in the country, spaying and neutering are unavailable, so every female dog she saw was pregnant or lactating. She also saw cases of severely overgrown nails, parasitism and skin problems such as Demodex.

“We did not see dogs over the age of 3 years,” Gardsbane said. “They don’t live long.”

Passing over the animals with a simple rabies shot was difficult. “We were there to assess what’s going on, what’s needed,” she said. “We were not there to treat. As a practicing veterinarian, that was really, really hard. I wanted to stop with every animal, look it over and do an exam. I just had to say, ‘I’m here to do the vaccines.’ ”

The visitors also did clinics in villages outside the capital, vaccinating 201 dogs in all. They gave the owners certificates of vaccination and kept their own log.

Although one cat was brought to the shot clinic in Monrovia, Gardsbane’s impression was that most cats, even those in houses, are somewhat feral.

“Cats are kept as rodent control in the attics, we were told,” she said. “Therefore, most likely, the cats are not used to being touched.”

Miller, whose expertise is goats, also visited livestock in the countryside. She found a profound lack of information about livestock health status. For example, “They say they don’t have any foot and mouth disease, but they aren’t doing any testing (to know for certain),” she said.

She’s proposing a survey to ascertain the kinds and numbers of livestock present, and blood sampling to test for prevalence of various diseases. “You can’t put together a vaccination campaign if you don’t what to vaccinate against,” Miller said.

Besides the country needing trained personnel to treat individual patients, Gardsbane sees a need for a broader effort to teach Liberians, especially children, empathy for animals.

At one hotel was a chimpanzee named Princess. “The owner fed her bananas and candy,” Gardsbane said. “The poor thing was sick while we were there. She was kept in a 3-by-3 (foot) cage with nothing. The woman who owned Princess felt like she was a child, but she wasn’t treating her child very well. She didn’t know.”

Gardsbane asked some children in the hotel whether they thought Princess had feelings. “No,” the children replied. “Do you think she is smart?” Gardsbane asked. “No,” they said. “She’s an animal.”

Thinking it over, Gardsbane realized that the children, growing up in a world of war, likely did not have a chance to learn empathy.

“If you don’t educate the people, they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong,” Gardsbane said. “... Now my big push is education, education, education.”

She and Miller said they’re focusing now on continuing the work in Liberia by finding support from as many quarters as possible, whether it be Veterinarians Without Borders, government entities such as the U.S. Agency for International Development or other non-profit groups.

Veterinarians Without Borders President and CEO Dr. Tom Graham agreed that the work must continue. “We certainly have the information we need,” he said. “Now we need to focus on getting grants written, pursuing donors and looking at something as simple as vaccine clinics in and around Monrovia.”



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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