Travel broadens vet perspectives for UI students

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

In the U.S., veterinary education and practice focus primarily on small animal practice — caring for dogs, cats or exotic pets — and large animal practice — ensuring the well-being and profitability of horses, cows, pigs and other agricultural animals.

Veterinarians also work in government agencies and biomedical research settings to advance the health of animals and people.

But there are many other approaches to veterinary practice around the world, and study abroad is one way to give students new perspectives on the field as well as opportunities to help others and gain clinical experience through volunteering.

Margarethe Hoenig, a veterinarian educated in Germany, brings an international perspective to her role as professor at the UI College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, where she conducts research related to diabetes and obesity and coordinates the study abroad program for veterinary students.

This summer, Hoenig organized study abroad programs that took UI veterinary students to China and Tanzania. In addition, four Illinois students participated in a spay and neuter trip to Nicaragua. Individual students also sometimes arrange for-credit experiences in other countries throughout the year.

In most summers, Hoenig takes a group of students to Germany to learn about veterinarians' roles in public health promotion in the European Union.

"Germany and the European Union recognize the importance of public health issues and address them in a very comprehensive manner," Hoenig said. "The European Union has also been at the forefront of regulations pertaining to animal welfare issues. The study abroad experience exposes U.S. students to a well-organized system of public health surveillance."

This year, Hoenig traveled with students to Beijing to study veterinary acupuncture at the China Agricultural University. This was the first offering of this study abroad class, but there are plans to repeat it in the future.

Hoenig also accompanied students to the east African nation of Tanzania, where they performed spay and neuter surgeries. While there, students learned that only 10 small animal clinics exist in the entire country of about 45 million people. Graduates of the country's only veterinary college usually work for the government or move elsewhere to practice.

"Dog and cat population control is a major issue in many poorer countries in Africa and South America," Hoenig said. "There is a need for veterinarians to donate their services, and there is a lack of resources. We shipped surgical equipment and other supplies from the U.S. for use in our clinics."

Hoenig said that once people in the villages understood that the veterinarians and veterinary students were there to sterilize as many pets as possible to prevent them from breeding, the people kept coming with their animals.

"There were so many animals, we could have been working there for many more weeks," she said.

Rabies, a viral disease that is transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal and is fatal if untreated, is also a major problem in Tanzania. A survey of the people in the villages that the UI students visited found that 10 percent had known someone who had died of rabies.

In Africa, rabid dogs are the main cause of human rabies cases. According to the World Health Organization, more than 55,000 people die of rabies every year, and 95 percent of these deaths occur in Asia and Africa. Only two or three people die of rabies in the U.S. each year.

As a reflection of the importance of this problem, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided nearly $10 million to the WHO to fund a five-year program to address the rabies problem in regions of Tanzania, South Africa and the Philippines.

"Veterinary government offices in Tanzania vaccinate animals against rabies in some villages, but owners do not have the money to pay for this service," Hoenig said. "However, the large population of unsterilized animals is of great concern in these countries, and animal population control along with rabies vaccination is the most effective strategy to reduce the incidence of rabies."

For more details about the trips to China, Tanzania and Nicaragua, visit publish.illinois.edu/internationalvetmed/see-where-else-our-students-have-been/.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

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