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A perfect storm is approaching, and without Congressional action, the consequences for public health may be dire.

[IMGCAP(1)]With 50 percent of U.S. Public Health Service veterinary medical officers now eligible for retirement, and 43 percent of veterinary pathology positions unfilled, the need for more veterinarians has never been greater. But the nation’s 28 veterinary medical schools are already at capacity. Applicants outnumber seats by more than 3 to 1. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a need for an additional 22,000 veterinarians by 2016, yet colleges of veterinary medicine have not received direct federal infrastructure support in more than 30 years.

This must change, and it must change soon.

Approximately 61 percent of more than 1,400 infectious disease organisms that cause illness in humans are caused by organisms transmissible from animals to people. Veterinarians have been responsible for some of the most significant advances in public health, including the near eradication of diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis in domestic animals.

In recent years, severe acute respiratory syndrome, monkeypox, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) have also had a significant impact on public health, and veterinarians have played a vital role in the identification, diagnosis, control and surveillance of all of these diseases.

With the veterinarian shortages and the demand growing, we can easily see the storm brewing offshore.

An alarming report from the Government Accountability Office warns of a growing shortage of veterinarians nationwide, “particularly of veterinarians who care for animals raised for food, serve in rural communities, and have training in public health.” The GAO report found the work force shortage will worsen “as a result of space constraints at the nation’s 28 veterinary colleges.”

That’s why leadership from many of the nation’s 28 veterinary medical colleges have come to Washington to meet with Members of Congress and ask for support for H.R. 2999, the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act.

There are critical shortages of veterinarians working in public health practice disciplines such as bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, environmental health, food safety and security, food production systems, regulatory medicine, diagnostic laboratory medicine and biomedical research.

The bill would create:

• A competitive grant program to schools of veterinary medicine

• Programs to support faculty recruitment and retention

• A fellowship program within the Department of Health and Human Services

• A Division of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health at the Health Resources and Services Administration

Please support the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act.

Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou is executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

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