South Africa is experiencing a severe shortage of veterinarians and to fix it will be tough. The country has a per-capita vet ratio far below international standards and only one training institution, the programme is expensive to run and it’s extremely hard to attract vets to rural South Africa. Experts trying to solve the problem are facing a great challenge.
According to Dr Fhumulani Munyai, chairperson of the heritage and transformation committee at the South African Veterinarian Council (SAVC), they are deeply concerned about the lack of veterinarians and vet practices, especially in rural areas.
While the international norm is to have between 200 and 400 veterinarians per million of a country’s population, the figure in South Africa currently sits at about 60 or 70 vets per million.
Considering this, deep thought must be put into how this can be addressed, Munyai says. “We must therefore ask: How do we address this shortage and attract new entrants into our industry? What does this mean for our profession and what is the professional landscape [going to look like] in the next 10 years to 20 years?
“Also, what challenges are our education institutions experiencing when it comes to transforming and sustaining the veterinary profession?”
Rural South Africa worst affected
Munyai and other experts say rural areas face by far the worst effect of the shortage. “Difficulties of attracting new veterinarians are commonly expressed within rural communities,” says Munyai.
According to Professor Vinny Naidoo, dean of the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, the reason is directly linked to the ability for vets to make a living.
“Veterinary fees are private and need to be paid by the client, which is not as easy for farmers as for urban clients [who earn] salaries. [Veterinarians are] dependent on people paying for services, as opposed to [doctors in] government-run medical hospitals, which are subsidised,” he explains.
Recruiting more students
Industry experts say efforts are underway to get more young people interested in the profession. But awareness, SAVC vice president Dr Nomsa Mnisi says, is not enough.
“We need to create interest as well. We encourage [veterinarians] as well as other animal health professionals to advertise themselves.”
She says that schools are the best targets for recruitment and more focus should be placed on learners in lower grades.
“In the past we used to focus on the matriculants, but at that stage they have already decided what they are going to do.”
Munyai, too, says her committee has started looking at promoting the veterinarian profession at primary school level and rural areas. “We urgently need to go out there and sell our profession.”
One training institution in SA
But currently the country’s only tertiary institution where school leavers can study to become veterinarians is at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science in Onderstepoort.
Naidoo says although there is a great demand from high school learners who want to study veterinary science, there are very few incentive bursaries to recruit them.
“This has a negative impact on students choosing to study towards being a veterinarian, as opposed to general interest in becoming a veterinarian.
Despite there being no plans to introduce vet programmes into other parts of the country in the nearby future, Naidoo says he is aware of the department of higher education doing an evaluation of the veterinary training needs of the country.
Naidoo cautions that they should look carefully at the training costs, as veterinary science is the most expensive training programme run, “due to the need to subsidise a veterinary academic hospital and supportive veterinary-only laboratories”.
“Also due to the large number of specialised subjects that need to be taught, the staff needs are much higher than a traditional science programme,” he explains.
Collaboration will be key
Munyai says her committee is identifying gaps in the veterinarian profession. This, she explains, is being done by reviewing the past and present state of the veterinarian profession in South Africa.
The aim is to create holistic and inclusive veterinary service delivery across urban and rural areas.
“We also want to bridge the gap between private and public vet professionals and promote public and private partnerships,” she adds.
Munyai is convinced that collaboration between the public and private veterinary services sector in the country could vitally improve accessibility to services especially in rural settings.
Naidoo, in turn, believes that the first step towards solving the problem in rural areas could be for government to offer some sort of subsidy to support veterinarians in rural areas. “Otherwise we’ll likely end up with lots of trained persons who can’t support themselves or pay back their study fees.”
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