A New England Veterinarian In Afghanistan
(By: Robert J. Galbraith/Kabul, Afghanistan)
Living in Afghanistan is like riding in novelist HG Wells’ Time Machine. It is a country where the 21st century AD, and the 21st century BC are just a short walk or drive apart.
At one moment you can be in the capital City of Kabul – calling North America on a cell phone, then minutes later, stepping back into Biblical times and its’ ancient surroundings.
This time warp may seem like a tourists’ dream, but to those humanitarian workers who are trying to bring this ravaged nation back from the 25-year abyss of Soviet occupation and civil war, it is an Olympian challenge.
New England Veterinarian, Susan Chadima has dedicated 8 weeks of her life to help train Afghani veterinarian students at the University of Kabul’s Animal Health Clinic. She is just one of numerous American civilians and military involved in the field of veterinary medicine in Afghanistan.
A native of Brunswick, Maine, Dr. Chadima didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to leave the comforts of family and the small animals clinic in northern Maine where she works. “I heard about what is going on in Afghanistan while at a meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association, in Minneapolis. There were 2 vets from Afghanistan and 7 from Iraq. They were talking about restructuring the role of veterinary practice in those countries,” she said. “Then I met a person from the Dutch Committee For Afghanistan (DCA), and felt I would really like to work with these people,” says the 51-year-old married mother of two children, aged 18 and 21 years.
“I was kind of looking for an opportunity like this, as I had a long interest in the country and was looking for a chance to use my vet skills there, rather than pounding nails or using a paintbrush with another NGO (Non-Government Organization) help group.”
Back in the United States, Chadima has been a small animal practitioner for 26 years. Her charges include mostly cats and dogs, but sometimes sheep and goats are brought to the Androscoggin Animal Hospital.
I met with Dr. Chadima at the Animal Clinic, a single story, brick and stucco building, located in the heavily-bombed suburb of south Kabul. The whitewashed clinic shines like a bright star amongst the wasteland of shell-pocked buildings and rubble of war. Opened in January 2005, the clinics only power source is a small diesel-fuel generator. “This clinic, is a joint project between the University of Kabul and the DCA, an NGO that has worked here for 18 years in animal health. The Committee mainly establishes veterinary field units and trains paravets (a six month basic clinical course establishes a person as a paravet) basic vet procedures,” explained Chadima.
The Committee has 300 clinics through-out the country, and is financed by R.A.M.P. (Rebuilding Agriculture Markets Program, Afghanistan), who are funded by USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development). “The field of veterinary medicine in this country is really slipping through the cracks as it’s not really on the radar screen,” she explained. “So if you really want to help the university and the Veterinary Faculty, and get the vet school ready, your going to have to contribute. This is why I am here.”
Historically, veterinary services were provided by the government for free, but the care and services were inconsistent and far from adequate at best. “The vets receive little pay,” says Chadima. “In fact, the salary for a vet here in the field is about 70-80 US dollars a month, so there is little incentive to work hard. The Afghans are victims of not having the opportunities and resources that we’re used to.”
Dr. Chadrima has been in Afghanistan for two-weeks, with 6 more to go. “The most interesting thing I have seen here is 8 dogs, 4 of them Afghan fighting dogs. This whole fighting dog culture is not politically correct in North America, but here it is a cultural thing. We think of Pit Bulls, but the fighters here are a mix of Mastiff and a Shepherd, very large and powerful dogs. The owners really care about their dogs, even though they’re used in the fighting culture. Dogs are only kept for security and fighting, so they want good treatment for them.”
Rabies is a huge problem in Kabul and the rest of the country, where wild and abandoned dogs roam the streets and countryside. Dogs are considered dirty and not to be touched or coddled. There is no ‘Man’s Best Friend’ culture here for dogs. A Westerner must be careful not to pat or show affection for dogs as it may be conceived as an insult to the locals. Cats, on the other hand are much more accepted and adored. It is said that the Profit Mohammad admired and owned a cat as a pet.
Outside the clinic, Doctor Wim Tondeur, Veterinarian and Deputy Program Director with the DCA, is directing an examination of a local mans’ two cows, while a gaggle of smartly-dressed veterinary students stand in awe watching the procedure. “This is also how to tell if the cow is pregnant,” he said, while a colleague pushed his plastic covered arm up to his armpits – into the rectum of one cow. “It’s not as simple as sticking the arm in and feeling around,” he affirmed. “The earlier you can find a pregnancy, then you can change to a better diet for the cow and stop milking 3 or 4 weeks before the calf is born, to give it more nutrients in the milk.” The local man is from Kabul and he owns three cows. “These cows are costly animals, most live in a room of the owners’ house,” explains 55-year-old Tondeur, a resident of Hoevelaken, Holland.
“Here in the city, most farmers with a few animals don’t have a grazing area. That’s the problem here, not enough hay and green legumes, which are rich in proteins. He has been feeding the cows onions and bread because he doesn’t have pasture,” says Tondeur. “Just onions and bread will give a cow indigestion. He should also be giving them some straw in their diet, for fiber.” (Average farm sizes range between 1-2 hectares, with 46% in permanent pastures).
The farmer explained to the vet that straw is expensive and he wants to save his stores for winter feeding. “They feed a lot of wheat straw to the cattle, which has little protein. Urea (a nitrogen supplement) should be included with the straw for a better diet. Nitrogen content is important in diet.”
A March 2003 livestock census indicated that there is an estimated 3.7 million cattle, 8.8 million sheep, 7.3 million goats and 117,000 camels in Afghanistan. Top exports are Opium, fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, and gems. Only 12% of the country’s land is arable.
The drought of the last 7 years has decimated the countries livestock by 60%. Thousands of acres of land are unusable due to the presence of millions of landmines, which kill over 100 people per month, many of them nomadic shepherds. Eighty-percent of population is dependent upon natural resources and agriculture for their livelihood.
Any North American farmer visiting Afghanistan (who’s population is estimated at between 20 and 29 million people) would be aghast at the non-existent rules concerning vaccination and destruction of infected herds. While Afghanistan is a challenge for people like Chadima and Tondeur, it is also a vets nightmare, an open Petri Dish of free roaming disease and bacteria that rise and fall, depending on the season.
“Sometimes we go out to the pastures where the farmer might have 5000 sheep. We castrate the yews and vaccinate the herd. Hoof and Mouth Disease and Anthrax are very, very common here. Enterotoxaemia (a bacteria found in the animals gut that can proliferate to toxic levels) is the first leading disease infection in sheep, Anthrax is 2.nd Back home we kill animals with these diseases, here it would be a catastrophe to do that,” says Tondeur. “Next week we will receive one million doses of foot and mouth vaccine.”
In some regions, 90% of animals are vaccinated, at least by the good farmers, whereas 35% of the total animals in Afghanistan (which is slightly smaller than Texas in land mass) are vaccinated. Growth hormones are not used as you need a constant supply of good feed to make them work, and they cost too much. “It cost $1 to vaccinate and de-worm a sheep,” says Tondeur, “but the benefit out of this treatment is the farmer gains $11. This is what you have to show for the vaccination, so it is well worth the investment. This is all voluntary on the farmers, but the savings make it worthwhile. Those who can afford it, prefer to vaccinate their stock.”
You have to be careful when buying brand name products in Afghanistan. There is a huge counterfeit market that provides the shop owners and street vendors with an inexhaustible supply of bogus products, from cigarettes to DVD’s, and even medicine. Counterfeit veterinary medicine and fake veterinarians are widespread.
“There is a lot of false medicine out there,” explains Tondeur. “It is largely made in Pakistan, and there’s a lot on the market. We are working with the Agricultural Ministry to curb fake medicine and fake veterinarians. There are old laws that aren’t in place and adjusted to present, so in reality, there is no law. We have distribution contracts to dispense medicine, to help curb the black-market trade in fake veterinary drugs.”
Back inside the clinic (which serves as both a university clinic, and a training center) Dr. Chadima is preparing the surgery room, where a young cat is to be spayed. Doctor Naserin, a veterinary graduate of Kabul University, will conduct the operation, under the directorship of Dr. Chadima. “While she is good at theory, she has had little practical experience,” says the vet. “We pay the clinic security guard 1 dollar for each stray cat he brings us. It’s (spaying or neutering) for a good cause and gives us good clinical practice for the students. “The problem is that the students left for 12 years during the civil war. In turn, they lost 80% of the faculty.”
Chadima says that there is not lack of enthusiasm amongst the students. “These students are extremely enthusiastic, very bright and they ask lots of questions. They would love to have the opportunity to study abroad and are very capable. Particularly the younger ones, as they were less influenced by the Taliban.” But it takes more than enthusiasm to get a degree and acceptance. “The students are committed but they haven’t had the finances or opportunity to get ahead, or study abroad.”
The day after the visit to the clinic, Chadrima, Tondeur and 6 students drove to the village of Tangi Qalia, a small village of 2500 people, just 10 miles east of Kabul (a city of 3.5 million).
As we turned off the main road and onto a smaller one, leading through farmer’s fields to the walled village, a turbaned farmer, wearing the traditional long Afghan gown, plowed his fields after harvesting a crop of potatoes. His wooden plow was being towed by two bulls, while he hung onto the leather reigns.
It was a scene right out of a Bible setting. The modern world was driving in to meet the ancient world, and once again, I was seated in HG Wells ‘Time Machine’, ready for another journey into the past.