LETTER | Veterinarians undoubtedly play an important and impactful role in society. A substantial part of our protein requirement is sourced from animals whether it is poultry, eggs, beef, mutton, or pork.
To produce them, we must first farm animals and ensure the process is undertaken efficiently to ensure the industry is a viable business and consumers are able to buy safe and quality animal products in sufficient quantity.
This will require the necessary expertise in animal production, husbandry, disease prevention and control, treatment, animal welfare practices, and food safety and hygiene.
Ensuring animals are transported properly to the slaughter and processing houses, the meat or milk processed must be inspected for food safety and hygiene, are part of a value chain in which veterinarians actively participate.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is also a growing concern and requires veterinarians to ensure medicines are used responsibly and prudently in animals as well as to be involved in other strategies to reduce the impact of AMR through a one health approach.
Remember the next time you eat a steak, fried chicken or milk, veterinarians have been wholly involved to ensure their quality and safety.
Veterinarians are also involved in raising the sufficiency level (ability of the local production to meet the local demand) of the different animal proteins.
The Malaysian poultry broiler industry has developed to become commercial and has reached a self-sufficiency level of 99.9 percent. The egg industry is achieving a self-sufficiency level of more than 100 percent with excess eggs being exported to Singapore and Hong Kong.
There will be growth in both these subsectors with increased demand but if disease control measures are not effectively managed and controlled then we would see high mortality and losses in the industry.
Impact of disease
If highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) disease were to strike, then our export industry would be impacted and cause billions of ringgits in losses.
During the 2017 HPAI outbreak, veterinarians had to act quickly to effectively control the disease, which affected not only the poultry industry but also the bird nest industry which was worth RM16 billion and RM1 billion respectively.
Other diseases negatively affecting and causing big losses in the industry include the recent infection of pigs with African swine fever and incidences of lumpy skin disease in beef cattle since 2021.
Between 1998 and 1999, an outbreak of the Nipah virus disease in Malaysia led to the culling of 1 million pigs and human deaths of 105. We need improved biosecurity, farming systems, and more veterinarians to play a crucial role in controlling these transboundary animal diseases.
Wildlife and small animal medicine
Veterinarians are also key in controlling diseases in wildlife and companion, exotic, and aquatic animals. Several diseases from animals can be transmitted to humans such as the highly fatal rabies.
Sarawak has already reported 13 human deaths from rabies this year which could have been reduced or avoided by further strengthening disease control strategies in dogs with the effective involvement of veterinarians.
Furthermore, a comparison of the number of veterinarians between Malaysia and several countries in the region indicates a big disparity.
In Australia, there are about 13,000 veterinarians, one for every 1,923 people, Japan has 40,251 veterinarians with one for every 3,123 people, Thailand has about 15,000 veterinarians with one for every 4,773 people, Taiwan has 5,342 veterinarians with one for every 4,300 people while Malaysia has 2,236 veterinarians with one for every 14,311 people.
Studies show that three in five people in Asia own pets, which is reflective of high pet ownership.
Furthermore, 59 percent of Malaysians raise pets with the ownership of cats and dogs being 34 and 20 percent respectively.
Pet ownership is growing rapidly with affluence and greater societal concern for animal welfare and will translate into greater demand for quality veterinary services provided by veterinarians and assisted by paraprofessionals.
The companion animal practice has become popular and competitive, attracting interest among young entrepreneurial Malaysian veterinarians.
The direction of the practice has shifted from curative towards preventive medicine, establishment of referral centres, and specialisation. Today, there are more than 650 companion animal practices in Malaysia and from January to May alone, 61 new clinics were licensed.
A total of 3,463 veterinarians were registered with the Malaysian Veterinary Council this year. However, only 2,236 have applied and received their annual practising certificate.
Most veterinary practitioners in Malaysia are graduates from two local veterinary faculties at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) which began their five-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine programmes in 1972 and 2009 respectively. The other remaining veterinarians graduated from Indonesia, Taiwan, and other Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan.
Annually, UPM has the capacity to produce 120 veterinary graduates while UMK produces 40. Additionally, it is estimated that about 60 to 80 Malaysians are qualifying every year from other foreign accredited universities. Hence, an estimated total of 220 to 240 veterinarians are joining the workforce on a yearly basis.
However, based on the demand for veterinarians from various projections, Malaysia would need more than 6,400 veterinarians nationwide to fulfil the ideal ratio of veterinarians at one per 5,000 population.
UPM and UMK are only able to increase the number of veterinary medical undergraduates to a certain level, beyond which they will be constrained by resources required like sufficient teaching staff and facilities.
Hence, the need for the setting up of new veterinary schools is crucial and should be encouraged to meet the growing demand and to fulfil the supply.
Intervention in providing training for the projected workforce demand will complement the government’s efforts and create the right ecosystem to raise standards in veterinary education.
Private institutions are well-positioned to offer such programmes and play a role in increasing the number of veterinarians and close the gap in workforce demand for veterinarians. We need to take the necessary steps.
The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Taylor’s University, former director-general of Veterinary Services Malaysia and former Malaysian Veterinary Council president (2017-2020).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.