Critical shortage of vets in SA

South Africa’s veterinary services are in a crisis, with an increasing number of vets resigning and many of them emigrating to other countries.

The shortage of vets was rising rapidly, said Dr Paul van der Merwe, CEO of the South African Veterinary Association, in an interview with Farmers Weekly.

“We have more veterinarians quitting the profession and emigrating than qualifying annually. In one survey, more than 80% of graduates indicated that they were contemplating emigration,” he said.

The shortage is affecting animal health services, and the ability to combat outbreaks of diseases such as avian influenza (bird flu) in poultry and foot and mouth disease in cattle. And the increased workload adds to the problems.

“The more stress placed on veterinarians, the more are leaving the profession. The more leaving the profession, the more stress on those staying behind.”

Van der Merwe said there was a worldwide shortage of veterinarians, but it was more acute in South Africa “as we started off with a massive shortage of veterinarians that is now snowballing”.

According to international standards, South Africa only has 10% of the veterinarians required to serve the field, he said. The shortage was contributing to breaches in biosecurity and leading to disease outbreaks, with massive impacts on the country. 

“The recent highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak decimated our poultry industry and resulted in the doubling of poultry product prices, whereas continuous foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks are resulting in export bans that are negatively affecting industry growth and job creation.”

Van der Merwe said the first step in addressing the shortage was to retain more veterinarians in the profession and in the country. He advocated an in-depth investigation into the reasons vets were quitting, as well as pay increases and additional education programmes, including student funding.

The shortage of state veterinarians is frequently cited as one of the reasons the poultry export drive has not taken off as planned. Veterinarians are needed to provide the health certificates that export destinations require. Plans to address the shortage were set out in the 2019 poultry master plan.