The much delayed 2007 Senate Farm Bill includes a provision incorporating the Veterinary Workforce Grant Program (VWGP) sponsored by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Saxby Chambliss (D-GA). The Farm Bill must by reconciled with the House version which is reflected in the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Bill introduced by Representative Tammy Allard (D-WI). The objective was clearly articulated by Sen. Chambliss; “Increasing the numbers of trained veterinary professionals in agricultural biosecurity will bolster out efforts to protect the food supply and mitigate the effects of disease outbreaks.”
The 28 accredited Veterinary schools in the USA currently enroll and graduate approximately 2,500 students each year. Over the past four decades, there has been a trend towards companion animal medicine and clinical orientation among students. Admitting more students from urban backgrounds, competing opportunities in industry and specialty disciplines and poor remuneration in traditional “farm practice” and public service have diverted students and graduates away from food animal and public health occupations. Many students now graduate with loan obligations of over $50,000 reflecting six to eight years of study.
The VWGP will allow the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a competitive grant program for colleges to enhance appropriate training at the professional and post graduate levels. It is envisaged that grants will defray the cost of erecting facilities, purchase of equipment and appointing faculty to facilitate specialized training. Teaching and laboratory aspects of training programs will be relatively easy in new Centers of Excellence. It is evident that funds will be required to support students, while acquiring mentored experience in foreign countries where the disease we wish to identify and eradicate are endemic. Perhaps the program could incorporate experience gained from the CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Fellowship program which enrolls physicians and other health care providers.
The VWGP is not yet a reality. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the U.S. Animal Health Association are lobbying strongly for enactment. With appropriate funding the program could help fill the need for an additional 400 trained veterinarians each year through 2012. The security of our food supply and the long-term viability of livestock production in our nation will depend on the contribution of a new wave of trained and motivated veterinarians who will rise to the challenges represented by emerging catastrophic diseases and the specter of agrobioterrorism.