AS 2011 draws to a close, so too does the International Year of the Veterinarian.
The world's first veterinary school was established in Lyon in France in 1761 and 2011 marks the 250th world anniversary of veterinary training.
The Lyon facility created the veterinary profession which has been working ever since to improve animal and human health. Well over 100 veterinary schools have since been established globally.
Veterinarians have been in service in Fiji since 1923 when Dr Charles Turbet, a graduate of the University of Sydney, was appointed the first veterinary officer within the Department of Agriculture.
He served for over 15 years, including a period as the acting director of agriculture in the late 1930s. Successive veterinarians in the department prior to Independence included Drs Harold Hall, Harold Stuchberry, Norman Sanders, Sigfried Ohman, Alan Donald, Ken Garnett, Harry Hardy, Jock Baker and Derek Robinson.
Dr Ken Garnett, whose family were dairy farmers in Tailevu, was the first national to graduate as a veterinarian and he later served as director in the late 1960s.
Dr Alan Donald, whose father had worked for the department in the 1930s, established the veterinary laboratory at Koronivia in 1956 when his first lab assistant was Deo Raj Singh. Deo Raj subsequently acquired a veterinary degree from the University of Sydney and later became director of Animal Health and Production.
Fiji has been well-served by both expatriate and local veterinarians through to and after Independence and a total of 14 Fiji citizens have graduated with degrees in veterinary science and returned to Fiji to work.
At present, however, only six of these graduates remain in Fiji. Over 50 expatriate veterinarians have worked in Fiji since the early 1920s, mainly in the department but several have also worked in the corporate livestock sector here.
A further 15 resident veterinarians, of whom three have been Fiji nationals, have worked at various times for the Fiji Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) since it was established in 1953.
In virtually all developing countries a team of animal health and production workers (often also called para veterinarians or simply para vets) provide complementary support to veterinarians simply because there is never an adequate number of the latter.
This has been very much the case in Fiji where over 100 para vets undertake an important role in service provision, both in rural areas/islands working with livestock farmers and in urban areas in specialised activities, such as in abattoirs and with the Fiji Biosecurity Authority.
The training of Fiji's para vets has been undertaken over many years by the Fiji College of Agriculture which is part of the Fiji National University. Para vets have included former rugby great Apakuki Tuitavua and Ilisoni Cokanasiga, father of both our Minister for Primary Industries Joketani Cokanasiga and also of veterinarian Dr Ken Cokanasiga.
Modern veterinarians undertake several key roles which are important to society. These include;
p Enhancing food security through more efficient livestock production;
p Controlling infectious animal diseases, some of which can affect humans;
p Ensuring food quality and safety;
p Protecting the environment and biodiversity; and
p Undertaking veterinary and biomedical research.
Fiji has a relatively large and developed livestock sector when compared to most of our island neighbours. Our livestock population comprises around 250,000 cattle, an estimated 150,000 goats, over 120,000 pigs, 12,000 tropical sheep (a breed developed here in Fiji) and well over one million poultry.
While livestock production is significant and increasing, there is still much room for greater import substitution as consumption is growing at a faster pace. At the same time, there is considerable opportunity for existing and also new producers to participate in meeting this demand as well as in targeting export markets in adjacent island states.
An added factor in Fiji's greater overall consumption of livestock products is our expanding tourism sector. Growth in our livestock industries can only be beneficial to Fiji both from a food security perspective as well as in terms of land use and rural economic activity.
Fiji is fortunate to be free from many serious diseases and pests of livestock, a situation which our national biosecurity service is committed to protecting. Nevertheless, a number of diseases present here do limit production, some of which are a risk to humans, including brucellosis and TB in cattle.
Skilled veterinarians and para vets are the most vital part of the national effort in maintaining animal health while also assisting directly with animal production and food safety. Capacity-building toward this objective clearly has an important role to play, to ensure we are well equipped to maintain active disease surveillance and monitoring, backed up by adequate response capability.
Because the world is now a much smaller place as a consequence of the ease of movement of both people (as well as animals) and food products, the risks of introduction of a disease or pest not currently present in Fiji are higher than ever before.
Increased vigilance and working closely with partners such as the regional Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the World Animal Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation in particular, is imperative. In fact, Fiji is a member of all three organisations.
In recent years, greater attention is being placed globally on animal welfare, partly for humane reasons in that animals feel and experience pain and deserve proper care and treatment at all times. In addition, more humane management of livestock, in keeping with best modern practice, provide an economic benefit to the farmer and also to the nation. Consumers of livestock products in developed countries are a major factor in driving an enhanced animal welfare focus. Fiji is a party to the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare and was the first Pacific island state to do so.
Veterinarians are important also in companion animal/pet care and the Fiji SPCA and Veterinary Care (Fiji) Ltd both provide such services. The SPCA also plays a role in animal welfare education and works with local government to reduce the stray dog problem.
Fiji has a small but globally important animal biodiversity, with our endemic iguanas being an excellent example. It is incumbent on Fiji in the first instance, to ensure these precious living resources are conserved for the world and veterinarians have a key role to play in these efforts.
New fields may also open to veterinarians in Fiji such as in aquaculture production, as more of our future seafood needs are sourced from fish farming systems. A horse racing industry, something discussed for many years, may also provide new opportunities for veterinarians as would a sea life park venture which has been proposed for the Western Division.
Although Fiji has sourced its veterinarians in the past from overseas veterinary schools, consideration is now being given to developing a veterinary program here in Fiji, possibly at the Fiji National University, where a Diploma in Animal Health has recently commenced.
Establishing and running a veterinary degree program is an expensive exercise because the five-year course is a highly specialised one. It is likely that partner veterinary schools would be involved in this initiative which will require careful feasibility and planning.
However, the case for a "home grown" veterinary degree is gaining strength, with indications of support from major institutions like OIE and also based on the demand for veterinarians from neighbouring island states.
It is evident that the need for veterinarians in Fiji will increase in the future as the consumption of livestock products continues to rise. Moreover, the growing numbers of farm livestock, often in intensive conditions near to urban population areas will also call for strengthened animal health services, particularly disease surveillance, monitoring and response.
The International Year of the Veterinarian has rightly served to highlight the importance of the profession to both animal and human health as well as to human wellbeing generally.
Fiji veterinarians who have served in Fiji since Independence are; Drs Robin Achari, Raana Asgar, Kenneth Cokanasiga, Anand Deo, Asish Narayan, Binend Pratap, Narayan Raju, Asha Reddy, Deo Raj Singh, Niumaia Tabunakawai, Riteshni Tarak, Joeli Vakabua, Sian Watson and Robin Yarrow