WITH the chronic shortage of veterinarians in Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs), maintaining healthy livestock and livestock products is a continuing challenge.
The New Zealand Aid Program and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) have provided funding to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community to assist PICTs in meeting this challenge through projects such as the Pacific Regional Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Project (PRIPPP) implemented from 2006 to mid-2011.
According to an SPC statement, the Paravet Project, administered by SPC's Regional Animal Health Service, was designed in response to PICT requests for a flexible distance-learning program to train paravets, the animal world's equivalent of paramedics.
Since the program was established in 2003, more than 400 people from 22 PICTs have participated in the paravet training.
"There is a current shortage of veterinarians in the Pacific region," said SPC Land Resources Division Research and Development technician Andrew Tukana.
"This increases the risk of either the introduction of exotic diseases or the re-emergence of endemic diseases or both, making the training of paravets even more important to fill the gaps in expertise."
The Agricultural Development in the American Pacific (ADAP) project, the USP, and SPC being involved in capacity-building in the agriculture sector developed the paravet training program.
After course materials were developed and piloted, the training was implemented with funding assistance from the New Zealand Aid Program, AusAID, ADAP and Taiwan.
"The paravet training was designed for those who are working in the field with animals and livestock farmers in an advisory capacity, such as agriculture extension officers, livestock inspectors, and quarantine officers," said Mr Tukana.
He said the delivery of the training program was being undertaken through the SPC member countries' government departments responsible for animal health and production.
"The people undertaking training may not have any previous formal training in animal health or animal production, but the paravet training gives them the necessary skills to recognise disease symptoms, carry out containment (quarantine) measures, undertake disease investigation and provide appropriate advice and treatment for sick animals," Mr Tukana said.
The paravets are trained to advise farmers on livestock husbandry management practices and how to improve animal productivity. They also ensure issues of animal welfare, environment and climate impacts are taken into consideration.
Animal disease surveillance is important to protect food security and incomes and to minimise public health risks associated with zoonotic diseases — those that could be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa.
For example, the 2009 outbreak of brucellosis in Fiji's dairy herd in the Central Division had public health implications. Thus, the authorities had to contain the disease through checkpoints, appropriate animal movement restrictions and collecting samples for testing, and also put in place awareness campaigns on the risks to public health.
Rigorous testing and slaughter of diseased animals ensued, leading to a decline in whole milk production, a corresponding decline in farmers' incomes in the major dairying area of Tailevu, and a long wait before farms could be declared disease-free.
Continuing discussions with regional tertiary educational institutions has seen Fiji National University, Solomon Islands College of Higher Edu cation and Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment include the paravet training in their curricula this year.
"Because of the shortage of vets in PICTs, there is still a role for SPC to play in conducting the training programs in PICTs with no tertiary agriculture training institutions and in the practical aspects of the training, from time to time," said Mr Tukana.
"SPC will also continue to be involved in any reviews and future developments of the paravet training program, including the development of specialised chapters in response to needs expressed by the member countries."