public health

[OPINION] #Vetmedismed and why pandemic funding should go beyond health

Pete Sengson
[OPINION] #Vetmedismed and why pandemic funding should go beyond health

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'While veterinarians do not attend to humans directly, the results of their work are key to human health'

The “Vet Med is Med” campaign reveals our leaders’ myopic view on health.

The Philippines remains the only country in the world not to implement face-to-face classes. Students enrolled in courses that require highly technical skills, especially medical courses, have been urging the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) since last year to allow their schools to conduct limited face-to-face (f2f) classes. In June 2020, CHED heeded this call and released a list of schools and programs approved for limited f2f, excluding schools with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.

When asked about this, CHED Chairperson Prospero de Vera said he was not aware of the “peculiarities” of the program and that he only knew about “pet care.” Different student councils and college deans took a stand and condemned the commission for this gaffe, which has now led to the #VetMedisMed campaign.

Perhaps it would not be a mortal sin to miss a couple of degree programs considered “medical.” However, there are only two degree programs with the word “medicine” on them, namely: Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. The Palliative Care Dictionary defines medicine as the science and practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Veterinary medicine is the application of this science on animals that are of economic importance to man. What is economically important to man is quite broad, depending on the context. It may mean food, companion, zoo, or wildlife animals. 

Amid a pandemic, what services do veterinarians offer? Veterinarians can be seen where animal and human activity would converge. They are working on: food safety and hygiene of livestock, control and management of virus outbreaks in animals (i.e., ASF and Avian Influenza), frontline medical care for companion animals, and surveillance of wild and farm animals to prevent another pandemic – we know of the animal origins of SARS-CoV-2, and on drug and vaccine research. Veterinarians played a role in developing some of the vaccines we use today for COVID-19. 

While veterinarians do not attend to humans directly, the results of their work are key to human health, specifically in primary care; that a higher education chief merely confines veterinarians as deliverers of “pet care” is just myopic and irresponsible. The blunder made by CHED in thinking about the status of Veterinary Medicine as a medical degree is a small symptom of a bigger, systemic problem. 

The World Health Organization has been prescribing to its member states the adoption of a “One Health” approach in formulating policies, legislation, and research to improve the general well-being of the public. One Health recognizes that the health of humans, animals, and the ecosystem are interrelated and must be approached in a multisectoral and transdisciplinary fashion. According to WHO, 70% of all emerging and re-emerging pathogens are zoonotic, which means they were introduced to humans from animals. Simply put, we cannot protect human health if we do not take a holistic approach and invest in health, agriculture, and the environment.

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COVID-19 taught us the urgency to adopt the One Health approach in governance. However, this does not seem to reflect on the policies of the current administration. The proposed national budget for 2022 prioritizes infrastructure spending, the military and police, and other “pork” insertions over public health, agriculture, and the environment. Of the P250 billion proposed by the Department of Agriculture, only P72 billion was approved. This is a P1-billion increase from their budget last year and is 70% short of the budget they can use this year to revive the hog and poultry industry.

Moreover, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is also one of the agencies receiving a minuscule budget at P25.29 billion. This is while scientists all over the world are sounding the alarm on the climate emergency which, if neglected, would not only affect human health but the survival of life forms on this planet. Of that amount, P1.6 billion is allotted for “Manila Bay rehabilitation,” which features the much-criticized dolomite sand “beach.” Additionally, it is quite stupefying that even the health department will receive budget cuts which will hit personal services (PS) and maintenance and other operating expenditures (MOOE) of key hospitals. 

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What the national budget spells for us in the year 2022 is food insecurity in terms of livestock resources and an environment that is susceptible to new disease outbreaks, whether in man or in animals. The national budget will also mean fewer employment opportunities, and it will cripple the important work of veterinarians and other medical professionals. This is appalling, and this is the reason why the youth is at arms today. 

The “Vet Med is Med” campaign is not just a campaign of kids missing school but an exposition of a state that deliberately neglects key sectors that contribute to our health and very existence. The “Vet Med is Med” campaign is an assertion of the people for a scientific and pro-people approach to the health care and governance that the Duterte administration failed miserably to provide. –

Pete Sengson is a third year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student at the Tarlac Agricultural University. He also serves as the Public Information Officer of AGHAM – Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, Food Security, and Self-Sufficiency chapter.