Following the Footsteps of a Barefoot Veterinarian

My hands strongly gripped the metal portion of the bike behind my body, as I rode down rocky hills, dirt roads, ponds, and paved streets. Although I spent only one day traveling to the field via motorcycle, I spent a week collecting case studies of the livestock, poultry, and animal health programs run through Samaj Pragati Sahayog. Dr. Bhopal – one of two SPS veterinarians – and I were traveling through villages to check on the welfare of animals, such as goats, chickens, buffalos, and cattle. We also followed a para-vet or barefoot veterinarian that day to better understand his role in providing medical services to local farm animals, and visited the Chick Rearing Center.

Motorcycle Ride

Before Dr. Bhopal began working at SPS in 2007, villagers mainly sought animal care through Jans, which are community members that treat animals through traditional methods. Although some of these treatments are successful, such as using local herbs for minor conditions, most other treatments have disastrous outcomes. For example, Jans treat anorexia by puncturing a vein on the diseased animal’s tongue; however, the needles used in this treatment are often times septic due to poor sterilizing measures and can cause infections. Infections can also occur through the treatment of vaginal or uterine prolapse and dystocia.

Regarding prolapse, Jans will forcefully reinsert the prolapsed mass into the body without shaving it beforehand or providing the sick animal with anti-body therapy. Consequently, the mortality rate of improperly treated prolapse is 100%, and the animals die within three to four days. The improper treatment of dystocia also has negative health outcomes. Dystocia results in difficult births through disturbances in posture or the birth canal. Rather than handling births carefully, Jans will forcefully remove newborns, which can injure both the mothers and their children. With regards to mothers, the forceful removal can cause vaginal infections, uterine inflammations, infertility, low milk productivity, or death. Jans are also unable to treat bacterial diseases or rabies, among other serious ailments. In addition to the use of Jans, other factors that affect animal mortality and health are poor awareness of animal care, poor access to veterinarian services, superstitious beliefs, and incorrect assumptions about veterinarian care.

Kahloo (Para-Vet) and Dr. Bhopal

Kahloo (Para-Vet) and Dr. Bhopal

Dr. Bhopal has been able to mitigate many of these factors through various medical services, such as his Para-Vet Program. The Para-Vet Program began in 2009 with two employees, but has since expanded to eight para-vets. Para-vets play a vital role in caring for local animals, including buffalos, cows, goats, and chickens. The para-vet we followed tended to parasitic infections in a pregnant goat and bullock, which caused diarrhea and fever in each animal, respectively. The para-vet’s success rate is so high that he is often referred to as “Doctor” by the villagers despite having only a high school education. This is not an isolated incident, however. Under the care of para-vets, between 80% to 90% of animals are successfully treated. In addition to lowering the rate of mortality, these local community members have also improved animal productivity. For example, dairy cows now produce up to 2.7 times more milk during the summer and 1.6 times more milk during the peak season due to improved health.

Para-vet candidates must meet a number of criteria before being hired by the organization. Dr. Bhopal ensures that his para-vets are literate and can conduct basic math calculations, as to calculate dosages and fees. Furthermore, they must be able to read English, as most of the medications para-vets use are written in English letters. Therefore, most para-vets have completed between tenth and twelfth standard education. Para-vets must also have an interest in animal health and husbandry, are eager to learn, are flexible, and are not intimidated by blood or other bodily fluids.

Dr. Bhopal trains the para-vets in animal husbandry and animal veterinarian sciences. Para-vets are skilled in diagnosing diseases by analyzing symptoms and taking temperatures. Furthermore, para-vets are familiar with a number of medications, such as Malonex, Vitamin B-Complex tablets, and anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-parasitic drugs, as well as their appropriate dosages. These recruits spend one month in the field, as well as additional time in a classroom setting before they are left to their own devices to treat animals.

Kahloo (Para-Vet) treating sick bullock with antibiotics.

Kahloo (Para-Vet) treating sick bullock with antibiotics.

Via motorbike, the eight para-vets travel between four to five kilometers to treat animals in over 100 villages. Every year, the program cares for approximately 5,000 animals suffering from a range of illness, such as foot-and-mouth disease, parasitic infections, and pregnancy complications. On a daily basis, a single para-vet will treat between two and four animals, unless it is during an outbreak in which case their patient load can increase to ten animals.

Para-vets also play an important role in other aspects of SPS’s Livestock Program including artificial insemination, conducting surveys, calf care, and vaccinations, as well as the dairy, poultry, and fodder programs. Each para-vet is responsible for administering 1,000 vaccines annually. Over a twenty-day period in the months of May, June, and November, a single para-vet will vaccinate 30 animals daily and spend 10 to 15 minutes on each animal. Due to the vaccinations administered by para-vets, foot-and-mouth disease has become increasingly rare in the area. Para-vets also attend Self-Help Group meetings to encourage and mobilize members to partake in the various livestock and poultry programs. Due to the success of the Para-Vet Program, SPS plans to hire eight more para-vets. Without the Para-Vet Program or the veterinarian services Dr. Bhopal provides, animal productivity and mortality would be incredibly low in the region SPS serves.

After I learned more about the Para-Vet Program through shadowing Kahloo and a second para-vet, Dr. Bhopal and I headed to the Chick Rearing Center (CRC) in nearby Udainagar. Chirps flooded the large space of the center, echoing off its austere concrete walls. Before me were thousands of baby chickens – 2,040 chicks to be precise – that were approximately four days old. The CRC, which is only 1.5 years old, distributes 100 Sapura-Desi chicks per household where they are raised for three months until they reach at least 2kg in weight generating between Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 per household. Over 2,000 chicks arrive at the CRC every twenty days and are reared there for fifteen days before being sent to SHG members involved in the poultry program. At the moment, two hundred SHG members in eight villages across four different SHG locations partake in the poultry program.

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The CRC is also important in reducing animal mortality. Raanikhet Disease, which is known as New Castle Disease outside of India, is a major factor in poultry fatalities in rural Madhya Pradesh. In some instances the viral disease, which is most prevalent during the winter season, can produce mortality rates as high as 100% in a single household. One such reason why the mortality rate is alarmingly high is due to lacking preventative care measures. Few chickens are vaccinated against such illnesses in impoverished villages. At the CRC, however, poultry supervisors – which are paid members of the community trained in poultry health and rearing – are provided medical supplies to treat and vaccinate chickens against Raanikhet Disease. Due to the health component of the program, the chick mortality rate is below 1%. The vaccination schedule is closely followed at the center, and chicks receive two vaccinations while reared there. Once they are given to SHG members at the fifteen-day mark, poultry supervisors administer two additional vaccines. There is currently one poultry supervisor per participating village. SPS also reduces mortality rates by maintaining the inside temperature of the CRC, as chicks are healthiest in enclosures around 35 degree-Celsius. During power outages, especially during the winter season, poultry supervisors will turn on the gas burner to limit fatalities.

As a self-proclaimed animal enthusiast (ask Andrew or anyone else I am in contact with about my excitement over seeing wildlife), it was incredibly interesting to learn about SPS’s livestock, poultry, and animal health programs. It is amazing how dramatic the difference in mortality and morbidity rates are with the presence of para-vets, poultry supervisors, and veterinarians in rural communities. Improving animal health is linked to productivity, which is important in the monsoon variable region. Better market prices for milk or chicken products from healthy animals encourage more individuals to rear farm animals for alternative sources of income. By transitioning to this income-generating activity, rural farmers can mitigate many of the economic risks associated with agricultural production in monsoon variable areas. This is a topic I am incredibly interested in and may continue to explore in my honors thesis.

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About Kelly Anne Bridges

I recently graduated from the University of Oxford (Class of 2017) with a M.Sc. degree in Water Science, Policy, and Management. Prior to attending Oxford, I completed my B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 2016) in Science, Technology, and Society with a concentration is Energy, Environment, and Technology.