VETERINARIANS play an important role in society. A substantial portion of our protein requirement originates from animals, including poultry, eggs, beef, mutton and pork.
To meet these demands, we must effectively manage animal farming to ensure the industry is sustainable and consumers have ample supply of safe and high-quality animal products.
This will require expertise in various areas, such as animal production, husbandry, disease prevention and control, treatment, animal welfare practices and food safety and hygiene.
In the broader livestock and food production system, veterinarians play an integral role in overseeing the proper transportation of animals to slaughter and processing facilities.
Additionally, they are actively engaged in inspecting meat and milk processing to uphold food safety and hygiene standards.
The issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an emerging concern and veterinarians are crucial in promoting responsible and prudent use of medicines in animals.
They also participate in multifaceted strategies aimed at mitigating the impact of AMR through a comprehensive one-health approach.
Next time you savour a steak, indulge in fried chicken or enjoy a glass of milk, it is important to note that veterinarians have been instrumental in ensuring the quality and safety of these products.
Veterinarians are also involved in ensuring there is sufficient animal protein sources within the local production to meet local demand.
The Malaysian poultry broiler industry has undergone commercialisation and has attained a self-sufficiency rate of 99.9%.
Meanwhile, the egg industry is currently exceeding self-sufficiency levels, with more than enough eggs to meet local demand and surplus eggs being exported to Singapore and Hong Kong.
Although these subsectors are poised for growth due to increasing demand, it is imperative that effective disease control measures be implemented and managed. Failure to do so can lead to significant mortality rates and losses within the industry.
In the event of an outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), our export industry would suffer significant consequences, resulting in losses amounting to billions of ringgits.
The 2017 HPAI outbreak serves as a stark reminder of the urgency veterinarians had to face when dealing with such diseases. This outbreak not only impacted the poultry industry but also had repercussions on the bird nest industry, valued at RM16 billion and RM1 billion, respectively.
Additionally, other diseases have affected and caused huge financial losses to the industry. Recent occurrences include the infection of pigs with African Swine Fever and cases of Lumpy Skin Disease in beef cattle since 2021.
Between 1998 and 1999, Malaysia grappled with the Nipah virus outbreak, which necessitated the culling of one million pigs and resulted in 105 human fatalities.
This underscores the need to improve biosecurity measures and farming systems, with an increased presence of veterinarians to manage and mitigate the impact of these transboundary animal diseases.
Veterinarians also play a key role in disease control among wildlife, pets as well as exotic and aquatic animals. Numerous diseases originating in animals can be transmitted to humans, such as the highly fatal rabies.
Sarawak has already reported 13 human fatalities attributed to rabies this year. As such, it is important to strengthen disease control strategies among dogs, with involvement of veterinarians, to reduce or prevent such incidents.
Furthermore, a comparison of the number of veterinarians between Malaysia and several countries in the region indicates a big disparity.
For instance, in Australia, there are approximately 13,000 veterinarians, with one veterinarian for every 1,923 people, Japan has 40,251 veterinarians, representing one veterinarian for every 3,123 people, Thailand has around 15,000 veterinarians, translating to one veterinarian for every 4,773 people and Taiwan has 5,342 veterinarians, resulting in one veterinarian for every 4,300 people.
In contrast, Malaysia has comparatively fewer veterinarians, with 2,236, leading to one veterinarian for every 14,311 people.
Meanwhile, studies show that three in five people in Asia own pets, indicating a high number of pet ownership. In Malaysia, 59% of the population own pets, with ownership of cats and dogs at 34% and 20%.
The increase in pet ownership is linked to rising affluence and an increased societal focus on animal welfare. This trend is expected to heighten demand for high-quality veterinary services.
Concurrently, the field of companion animal practice has become popular and competitive, attracting the interest of young entrepreneurial veterinarians in Malaysia.
The practice has undergone notable transformation, shifting its focus from curative medicine to preventive care, with the establishment of referral and specialisation centres.
At present, there are more than 650 companion animal practices in Malaysia, with 61 newly licensed clinics registered between January and May.
There are currently 3,463 registered veterinarians with the Malaysian Veterinary Council. However, only 2,236 have applied and received their Annual Practising Certificate.
The majority of veterinary practitioners in Malaysia graduated from two local universities – Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK). UPM initiated its five-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine programme in 1972, while UMK started its programme in 2009.
The remaining veterinarians obtained their degrees from Indonesia, Taiwan and other Commonwealth nations, such as India and Pakistan.
Each year, UPM produces approximately 120 veterinary graduates, while UMK contributes around 40.
Additionally, it is estimated that 60 to 80 Malaysians graduate annually from accredited foreign universities. As a result, an approximate total of 220 to 240 new veterinarians enter the workforce each year.
However, based on the demand for veterinarians from various projections, Malaysia will need an excess of 6,400 veterinarians nationwide to fulfil the ideal ratio of one veterinarian for every 5,000 people.
UPM and UMK can only scale up the number of veterinary medical undergraduates to a certain extent as their expansion is limited by available resources, including teaching staff and facilities.
The establishment of additional veterinary schools is imperative to accommodate the growing demand and meet the required supply of veterinarians.
Facilitating training for the projected workforce will also complement the government’s ongoing efforts and elevate standards in veterinary education.
Private institutions are also well-positioned to contribute by offering relevant programmes, thus playing a significant role in augmenting the number of veterinarians and bridging the workforce gap in the veterinary field.
The writer is a professor at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Taylor’s University and was the former Director-General of Veterinary Services Malaysia and president of the Malaysian Veterinary Council (2017-2020). He is a Founding Fellow at the Malaysian College of Veterinary Specialists and was the president of the Federation of Asian Veterinary Associations (2020-2022). Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org