Lack of farm vets is becoming a crisis


The production animal industry in South Africa is facing a serious shortage of veterinarians, which could have disastrous consequences for agriculture, competitiveness, biosecurity, animal health and food security. The veterinary profession currently shows a negative growth rate with more professionals leaving the country or retiring every year than qualify.

An extremely distressed policy environment also strangles the profession and the lack of understanding and insight among policy makers and officials of the challenges that veterinarians must face, accelerates the outflow of experienced people from the country and the profession.

There are approximately 3,500 veterinarians and 219 veterinary specialists registered in South Africa, but it is estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 who are not practicing. This includes vets in academia, industry, retired vets, vets who have left the profession and vets who have emigrated but retain their registration for whatever reason. There are even quite a few vets aged 80 and over, who still practice in the countryside.

The more young vets leave the country, the greater the pressure on those who stay behind with a huge accompanying impact on their mental state. The SA Veterinary Association’s (Sava) most recent surveys indicate that 38% of vets show signs of moderate to severe depression and that as many as 78% of the group have considered self-harm or suicide.

A large part of new entrants to the profession choose careers in the city where they serve pets. Fewer and fewer choose to work in the countryside on farms and with production animals.

Onderstepoort is the only faculty where veterinarians are currently trained within South Africa, and the University of Pretoria is one of only three in Africa that supplies the 54 countries on the continent with veterinarians. However, in the selection criteria for students who gain admission to Onderstepoort, merit and performance play second fiddle to black empowerment requirements, and the same applies to career opportunities in the state and some corporate groups. Inequality is one of the biggest drivers of emigration in the industry.

In 2019, Saai already reached agreements with European universities to accommodate a number of South African students who, for political reasons, were not selected at Onderstepoort. Almost 50 of them are currently in different year groups, among others in Hungary.

For veterinarians who qualify abroad, the challenges of coming to practice in South Africa are legion. Among other things, they must first write an additional exam in South Africa, which can only be done once a year; and perform a year of compulsory community service, although the state has not invested in them at all. This leads to the situation where veterinarians sometimes have to wait up to two years before they can start practicing.

The compulsory community service program for veterinarians is similar to the so-called Zuma year that applies to medical doctors. The problem is that the state does not have the money to maintain the community service. The young vets are extremely frustrated and want to be used much better, which then often leads to emigration.

Even experienced veterinarians become frustrated with incomprehensible regulations that cripple the industry and make their job impossible. Thus, the South African Health Products Regulatory Board’s (Sahpra) recent ban on vets’ use of oxygen jeopardizes all operations under anesthesia and no alternatives are offered by the authorities. Also yohimbine, a drug used to reverse sedation or anesthesia especially in wildlife, was suddenly banned. Game such as rhinos, elephants, endangered species and predators that have been stunned cannot be left in the field in this condition, because it puts them in danger.

However, there is no simple solution.

In the short term, the profession, and especially the production animal industry as a focal point in the profession, must be aggressively marketed among young people, while alternative opportunities for foreign training are expanded. The pressure on the state to make it easier for foreign-educated veterinarians to come and practice in South Africa must also be increased at the same time. Saai is actively engaged in it.

Just as Onderstepoort Biological Products can no longer efficiently deliver animal vaccine to the animal industry in South and Southern Africa, Onderstepoort’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine also finds it difficult to maintain the standard of training due to a tremendous shortage of academic staff. Retirements and resignations of key expertise have left gaps that cannot be replaced with BEE. Saai has already entered into discussions with Akademia and dreams of a private veterinary faculty.

In the meantime, livestock farmers must appreciate and support their rural veterinarians. No higher plans for better biosecurity and the fight against livestock diseases are possible if there are not enough veterinarians who can visit farms.

Your future as a farmer is inextricably linked to the future of sufficiently superior veterinary services.