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COVID-19: A view from abroad

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The COVID-19 pandemic looks pretty grim for veterinarians here in North America. But how does it look to your colleagues around the world facing the same challenges? Are they facing the same challenges?

To find out, NEWStat got in touch with some folk at the World Small Animal Veterinarian Association (WSAVA).

An umbrella organization of more than 200,000 veterinarians worldwide drawn from 113 member associations, the WSAVA takes its tagline “Global Veterinary community” seriously. Its goal: to advance the quality and availability of small animal medicine and surgery globally, creating a unified standard of care for companion animals throughout the world.

NEWStat spoke to WSAVA Chief Executive Officer Arpita Bhose, based in London, England; four-time WSAVA president Shane Ryan BVSc (Hons), MVS, CVA, GradDipAnimChiro, MChiroSc, MRCVS, based in Singapore; and Michael Lappin, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (SAIM), a professor at Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Chair of WSAVA’s One Health Committee, in a recent three-way Zoom conversation.

NEWStat: In writing about the WSAVA, I’m interested in getting a kind of “view from abroad” in terms of COVID-19 and the veterinary profession. In the US and Canada, companion animal veterinarians are largely considered to be providing “essential services,” although that can vary from state or province to state/province. Are they considered essential in the rest of the world?

Michael Lappin: The WSAVA has been urging all countries to recognize all veterinarians as essential.

Shane Ryan: In countries like Australia and New Zealand, [or] for lack of a better word, the more developed countries, veterinarians across the spectrum have been labeled essential services. In other countries, maybe more developing or more production-animal focused, companion animal veterinary practices are not being considered essential services. Where veterinarians look after animals in the food chain, definitely they’re deemed essential services. It depends very much on where you are and possibly how active and how strong a local veterinary association [you have in place] to push for the entire gamut of the veterinary spectrum. From a companion animal perspective, it’s very variable. It depends on where you are.

Arpita Bhose: In Ecuador, they can work from their hospitals for a few hours every day, but that’s being monitored by the government. It’s completely different everywhere.

SR: In southeast Asia, in countries like Cambodia, [hospitals] are having a lot of trouble staying open and getting staff in to work. In parts of Africa, it’s the same sort of thing. They’re not regarded as essential services. Whether they’re being monitored [by the government] is possibly a different question. But they’re not necessarily supposed to be open. Some countries like Sweden have no restrictions at all. It’s a broad spectrum of possible scenarios. In Singapore, for example, one of the issues has been getting our staff exempted to be able to work. We originally had a hospital of about 22 staff. After we went in to [lockdown] here, we were allowed three staff [members]. And we’re a 24-hour hospital. It wasn’t feasible. We had to do a certain amount of pleading and negotiation to get sufficient staff to be able to run emergency and after-hours services. But [veterinarians working within the food chain] are considered essential everywhere. I haven’t heard of any exceptions to that.

NEWStat: In North America, personal protective equipment (PPE) has been in short supply. How are supplies globally?

SR: It’s been okay here in Singapore. In countries like Vietnam, they’re having trouble getting supplies. Australia is doing okay.

AB: In the United Kingdom, human hospitals have been taking donations from veterinary clinics because we don’t have enough for the hospitals, so the veterinary hospitals have been stepping up and sending in their masks. So many different countries have been given different advice [about PPE]. In the UK, they’re not being instructed to wear masks, so the push isn’t on so much.

ML: We made the call quite early on to help the human health care side of things with veterinary donations. That wasn’t just happening in the US. The WSAVA was encouraging that worldwide.

SR: [Veterinarians globally] certainly are trying to do their best to preserve and conserve gloves, masks, and gowns so the human medical workers have sufficient [quantities] for their challenges on the front lines.

NEWStat: Two cats and a dog recently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the US, and that’s gotten a lot of pet owners worried that their pets could catch or transmit COVID-19. How are companion animal veterinarians in other countries dealing with client fears?

ML: We’re just trying to get people to keep it in perspective. [You have] millions of human cases worldwide, but you can still count the number of cat and dog cases on two hands. That’s partially due to the fact that we haven’t had a chance to test a lot of animals. But with animal testing now expanding, you can still count the number of cases on two hands, in the entire world. So keep it in perspective. This is a person-to person disease. Our message has stayed on point the whole time: to our knowledge, it’s not a significant disease in dogs, cats, and ferrets. And if they ever do get infected, they’re [likely infectious] for a very short duration. And there’s still not a documented pet-to-person infection in the entire world.

NEWStat: The WSAVA is making a huge effort to provide COVID-19 resources for veterinarians on its website. How do you see the WSAVA’s role or mission in helping veterinarians cope with the pandemic?

ML: The WSAVA’s position is to continue to gather and monitor information from all our scientists working within the field. Scientists with the World Organization for Animal Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention serve on a variety of our committees. We would like to continue to filter through [the mass of information on COVID-19] to provide accurate information to veterinarians worldwide. We want to make sure we have accurate information for protecting our staff and understanding what’s happening in companion animals, most importantly, so that people understand that and protect the welfare of the animals.AB: For us it’s the global message, and it’s members helping members. Some countries or states have maybe more advanced resources in place, showing what we can do to help each other. It’s about sharing information globally, and the WSAVA is providing a fantastic platform for this.

SR: As an example, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be doing a COVID-19 webinar for veterinarians in Egypt. They’re reaching out to us to get evidence-based information regarding companion animals because they’re finding it difficult to access there. That’s something WSAVA can do. We can reach out to various parts of the world.

Read the WSAVA Lockdown Diaries for stories of how veterinarians around the globe are coping with COVID-19, in their own words.

Photo credit: © iStock/domin_domin