Veterinarians don't just care for cats and dogs. They monitor the health of cattle, pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Absent an adequate supply of vets, more people will fall sick -- or even die -- from animal-borne illnesses.
That's why public health leaders from government and higher education must prioritize training more veterinarians, especially for work in rural America, where much of the country's food comes from.
Veterinarians are as integral to modern farming as tractors. They vaccinate animals against dangerous diseases. They provide treatment when animals get sick. And they inspect livestock prior to slaughter.
Early detection is critical to prevent food supply contamination. Last year, veterinarians in Alabama detected an early case of mad cow disease before the animal entered the food supply.
Or take the 2015 bird flu outbreak. Chickens and turkeys at about 200 farms were infected. The disease has no vaccine, so any birds at risk of infection had to be slaughtered. Farmers put down nearly 50 million birds. The entire saga cost the nation upwards of $3.3 billion.
But without the work of veterinarians, the outbreak could have spread further -- and ultimately infected people.
America may be unprepared for another crisis. More than 180 regions lack enough livestock and public health veterinarians. By 2025, our nation will be short 15,000 veterinarians, with rural areas suffering the most.
It's not surprising that there are so few rural veterinarians. These doctors earn lower salaries and work longer hours than those in urban areas. Many veterinarians want to be close to big cities. Between 2013 and 2016, only 24 percent of veterinarians decided to practice in rural areas.
The government could alleviate the rural veterinary shortfall with reforms.
It could boost funding for rural veterinary clinics and training programs. Last fall, the Department of Agriculture awarded only $2.35 million in grants to such programs. That's a relative pittance -- investing in rural veterinary clinics could prevent future disease outbreaks that would otherwise cost billions.
The government could nudge veterinarians to practice in rural areas by making the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program more generous. At present, the program offers animal and public health veterinarians up to $75,000 in student loan repayment for serving three years in a shortage area.
That money is taxed, though. Twin bills in the House and Senate -- H.R. 1268 and S. 487 -- would make these payments tax-exempt and encourage more veterinarians to practice in high-need areas.
Universities can take action, too. Texas Tech University is opening a new veterinary school that will urge students to participate in clinics in rural areas. Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee offers a special program that trains students to work in rural areas.
The school I lead, St. George's University in Grenada, adheres to the One Health approach, which emphasizes the interconnections between human, animal, and environmental health that are at the core of the public and animal health challenges facing rural veterinarians. Our location in the Caribbean affords students more direct research experience with animal- and vector-borne diseases that can cross over to infect humans.
The ongoing shortage of veterinarians in rural areas is a threat. People are only as safe as their food supply. Public health leaders must address this looming crisis before the next major disease outbreak occurs.
Dr. Neil C. Olson is Dean of St. George's University School of Veterinary Medicine.