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CVM Veterinarian Participates in Latin America Humanitarian Mission

CVM Veterinarian Participates in Latin America Humanitarian Mission

by Jon F. Scheid, Editor
FDA Veterinarian Newsletter March / April 2008 Volume XXIII, No II

Dr. Elvira Hall-Robinson, a veterinarian who works at the Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Research, took a month away from her regular duties to serve on a medical team aboard the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship, USNS Comfort, when it made a humanitarian assistance mission to 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries last year.

Dr. Hall-Robinson is a Commander in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). The PHS is one of seven uniform services of the United States that includes personnel with a mission of protecting, promoting, and advancing the health of the Nation.

The PHS Commission Corps is organized under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Members of the Commissioned Corps are deployed to disaster areas and they are capable of carrying out emergency medical and public health operations at remote sites. Dr. Hall-Robinson, for example, volunteered for two deployments to the Gulf Coast fol-lowing Hurricane Katrina, once as a public health specialist to determine the safety of food supplies, and once as a veteri-narian to take care of pets displaced by the storm.

The Comfort was deployed on a 4-month mission as part of President Bush’s Joint Service Latin American Health Initia-tive, announced in March 2007, to help improve the health and welfare of people from Latin America and the Caribbean. When President Bush announced the Comfort’s mission, HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt sent word to the members of the PHS asking for volunteers. PHS members take part in these missions not only to provide humanitarian aid and assis-tance, but also to train and be prepared for deployments to remote sites and abroad during emergencies.

For the Joint Service Latin American Health Initiative, the PHS personnel were part of the more than 700-person medi-cal team on the Comfort. The PHS volunteers were divided into four 15 to 17-person teams, each team serving for 1 month, so no individual member had to spend too much time away from family and regular job. The PHS teams included physicians, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, environment specialists, and a veterinarian capable of working with large animals.

The Comfort sailed from Norfolk, VA. It visited 12 countries from June to October 2007, spending about a week at each port. Dr. Hall-Robinson joined the ship in August as it visited Peru and continued with it as it visited Ecuador, Colombia, and Haiti. Dr. Hall-Robinson was part of the Comfort Preventive Medicine team. Altogether, that team had more than 37,000 preventive health encounters in underserved communities throughout the entire mission.

Field veterinary work

During the mission, Dr. Hall-Robinson treated farm and companion animals. Most of the work was preventive medicine, typically deworming and vaccinating the animals and providing them with vitamin packs. Helping to keep all animals healthy is important for human health, she said. In the countries she visited, all of the animals, not just the pets, are con-sidered a part of the family and live with the people. Many of the rural villages had houses with dirt floors. Pigs were often penned inside the house, which kept the pigs in close proximity to family members. Parasites from the animals infect the people, too, Dr. Hall-Robinson said.

Also, Dr. Hall-Robinson said, the companion animals are just as important to the villagers in Latin America as they are to people in the United States. She described a little girl, probably not 3 years old, who kept her kitten with her at all times. The kitten and the little girl were perfectly comfortable together, she said.

Dr. Hall-Robinson said that treating large farm animals was often difficult, because she did not have restraining equip-ment available, such as chutes. In one case, to deworm cattle, she had to work with owners who would restrain an indi-vidual animal, giving Dr. Hall-Robinson a chance to use a pour-on dewormer.

The mission was well organized, Dr. Hall-Robinson said. Advance teams would visit the department of health or agricul-ture in each of the countries to obtain information on the type of treatments that would be needed. In most cases, she said, she had the drugs and vaccines she needed to treat the animals. In a few cases, though, she bought supplies lo-cally.

Her typical day would start at 6 a.m. or earlier, depending on how she would be transported to the treatment sites, which were all on shore. In one port, the Comfort was able to dock, so the medical staff could easily come and go. In an-other case, due to security concerns, the Comfort was anchored 30 miles off shore. The staff would have to fly to shore in a helicopter, a dozen people at a time, or make the trip aboard one of the Comfort’s “hospitality” boats.

Most of the time, the medical staff was all back onboard the ship by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., when they would clean equip-ment, get ready for the next day, and write reports. They teams worked 7 days a week.

Security was always a concern. In some countries, the medical staff needed only limited protection. In other countries, the local military escorted the teams to the sites and back to the ship, Dr. Hall-Robinson said. The medical staff was fully briefed on the type of work needed at each site visit and on security issues. “We had a lot of briefings,” she said.

Lunch in the field was something the military calls “MREs,” or Meals Ready to Eat.

When first deployed in a new country, the first day was usually spent setting up; getting equipment and medicines in place, and finding a suitable spot to work. (Occasionally, Dr. Hall-Robinson’s veterinary treatment site was simply a table set up in a clearing.) The remaining 6 or 7 days were spent treating animals.

Dr. Hall-Robinson said she found the work highly rewarding. It gave her a chance to help animals that would not other-wise receive treatment. These missions also help her be ready for emergency deployment, she added. Going to these remote areas can lead to “culture shock” for someone who has not done missions like this, which would make it harder to adjust to the environment when deployed on an emergency mission, she said.

Elvira Hall-Robinson, a veterinarian with CVM’s Office of Research, volunteered to spend a month aboard the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship, USNS Comfort, during its 4-month humanitarian mission to Latin American and the Caribbean. Dr. Hall-Robinson is a Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service’s (PHS) Commissioned Corps. She was part of a 15-member PHS team that provided medical and veterinary care in rural areas. Here, she is examining a dog at a field treatment site at the Bueanaventura Coliseum in Buenaventura, Colombia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelley E. Barnes)

USNS Comfort (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Lolita M. Lewis)

CVM’s Dr. Elvira Hall-Robinson and a local veterinarian provide veterinary care at the Bueanaventura Coliseum in Buenaventura, Colombia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelley E. Barnes)

The importance of pets: Dr. Elvira Hall-Robinson, during her month-long tour with the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship, USNS Comfort, found that pets are as important as farm animals to many of the residents of the Latin American countries. This young girl and her cat were nearly inseparable.