Veterinary schools a bottleneck

Field aids human health, but colleges lack openings


The catastrophic injury that ended Barbaro's Triple Crown bid at Pimlico on May 20 - and the extraordinary effort by University of Pennsylvania surgeons to save him - have turned a spotlight on veterinary medicine in the United States.

Enjoying little of the attention that doctors of human medicine receive, veterinary researchers are using much of the same science to understand, prevent and treat animal injuries, and to fight diseases that affect agriculture and the food supply.

Veterinarians are also working on such illnesses as avian flu, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and mad cow disease in a joint effort with public health officials to safeguard human health.

"Veterinarians have been contributing to advances not just in veterinary care, but also human medical care, for years and years," said Dr. Lawrence E. Heider, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

But the nation's 28 veterinary schools are at capacity and can't keep up with the demand for new doctors. They admit about 2,600 new students each year, but 600 others must seek their training abroad, Heider said.

"Right now, there is enormous demand for graduates from all vet schools," said Jeffrey Douglas, spokesman for the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "The profession is playing a huge role in society, but it lacks the infrastructure and the money to do the job it needs to do."

`We need support'

Legislation before Congress would authorize $1.5 billion in grants over five to 10 years to expand and strengthen veterinary training programs.

"We need support for that," said Dr. Susan M. Stover, an equine researcher at the University of California, Davis. "Vets are critical to human health and food safety in ways that I don't think the public has the knowledge to have an appreciation for."

For many Americans, the sophisticated care that Barbaro received at Penn's New Bolton Center was a revelation. But vet schools across the country provide state-of-the-art treatment every day, even as they train young veterinarians and conduct cutting-edge research.

Stover's lab at UC Davis, under the authority of the California Horse Racing Board, conducts animal autopsies - called necropsies - on about 250 thoroughbreds that die at California racetracks each year.

Barbaro suffered "a particularly severe combination of injuries, but the most catastrophic happened to be the most common injury we see in California racehorses," Stover said.

That injury is a "fetlock breakdown," the hyperextension and rupture of the ligaments, tendons and bones that support the horse's fetlock, or ankle joint. Most animals with such injuries are euthanized.

The fetlock problem is a particular focus of Stover's research, and her conclusions are sobering.

"Inadvertently and unintentionally, ... I think we set them up for injury," she said of America's racehorses.

In general, a horse's muscles and bones are "overbuilt" by nature to sustain most of the load put on them. But racing pushes the envelope.

The necropsies have revealed evidence of previous, milder injuries. The tissues are temporarily weakened as they heal, and "there's a transient period during the healing process when they become at risk of catastrophic injury," she said.

That recognition is actually good news, Stover said, because "we have an opportunity to prevent and intervene, so that in the future we can reduce the occurrence of these injuries."

Advances in bone scans and magnetic resonance imaging, she said, "do allow us to detect milder injuries earlier, so horses can be appropriately rehabilitated."

At the same time, Stover's lab is conducting epidemiological studies to identify patterns in training and racing that put horses at greater risk. She is also studying the dynamics of racetrack surfaces. They can be inconsistent from track to track, increasing the risk to animals that have adapted to one surface, only to be raced on another.

Research frontiers

On the other side of the continent, at Cornell University's School of Veterinary Medicine, scientists are helping to decode the equine genome. They are seeking new tools with which to fight such illnesses as equine herpes. The highly contagious viral infection, which struck horses at Pimlico Race Course this spring, can cause potentially fatal neurological complications.

"We don't have good vaccines for herpes viruses in animals or people," said Dr. Doug Antczak, director of Cornell's Baker Institute for Animal Health.

Baker scientists developed vaccines for canine distemper and parvovirus that are familiar to dog owners. They also have devised a test for a gene that causes blindness in Irish setters 3 to 7 years old. Breeders can use it to avoid matings that would produce puppies with the defect.

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