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Working in government service
  1. Victoria Barrell

Abstract

Victoria Barrell qualified from Massey University with the intention of working in equine practice. A combination of circumstances led to her joining the New Zealand government veterinary service. This opened up a number of opportunities, including a visit to Nepal to learn more about foot-and-mouth disease

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I GRADUATED as a mature student from Massey University, New Zealand, in 2004, and was awarded an externship at the Dubai Equine Hospital in Dubai. I then worked in mixed practice with a special interest in equine medicine. During this period, I authored some papers published in peer-reviewed veterinary journals. Down the track, a combination of circumstances saw me without a full-time position and casting about for a stop gap until such time as a suitable clinical position became available. The stop gap turned out to be a position as a government-employed veterinarian with the then New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA). I had always intended to return to clinical practice, but after six months with the NZFSA, I was faced with a dilemma. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying the job: it was decision time. Should I return to clinical practice or pursue a career as a vet with the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI)?

After joining the NZFSA, which morphed into the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and, later, the MPI, I worked at several meat export premises across New Zealand as a veterinary technical supervisor providing official assurances by way of export certification to overseas markets that import animal products from New Zealand. Essentially, my role is as the regulator and verifier, ensuring processors in the red meat industry manage their operations compliantly and are meeting New Zealand standards and overseas market access requirements of the countries they export to. There are many varied career paths for veterinarians within the MPI and opportunities abound for committed and enthusiastic individuals.

The MPI supported my part-time study towards gaining membership of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVSc) in pharmacology. In addition to my work at the meat export premises, I took up the position as the Canterbury team coordinator of the ministry's on-farm verification programme (OVP). This programme focuses on farms where the main activity is the supply of beef cattle, sheep/lambs, deer, goats or horses to meat export premises. It underpins the official assurances that the MPI provides for the export of our animal products to the EU. As an advocate for the OVP, I have had the opportunity to speak at local and international conferences, to farmer and farming industry-related groups and, most importantly, to individual farmers on their farms. Postgraduate studies in pharmacology together with the benefits of membership of the ANZCVSc have enabled me to discuss the use of veterinary medicines in production animals, residues in products derived from these animals, the importance of withholding periods in preventing residue violations and the implications for overseas trade.

An audit qualification attained through my work with the MPI saw me auditing veterinary practices as part of the New Zealand Veterinary Association's Best Practice scheme. This gave me a direct link to clinical practice, keeping in touch with the day-to-day stresses and challenges facing clinicians. Would I really want to go back to this? If you had said to me at vet school that I would one day work as a government veterinarian, I would have laughed and dismissed the notion without further thought. Having sampled life as a clinician and now life with the MPI, I'm more than comfortable with the decisions I have made.

In 2012, I was appointed as one of two MPI Verification Services animal welfare investigators whose role is to investigate and assist the Compliance Directorate with animal welfare cases. As part of this, I undertook investigative training, which was an enjoyable and challenging experience. Animal welfare cases can be demanding at best, but resolution of an animal's pain and suffering and raising awareness through education of the role and responsibilities of people in charge of animals is a positive outcome for the animal(s), people involved and society as a whole. Some cases require a prosecutorial response while others benefit from an educational approach.

Real-time FMD training

While I was juggling multiple roles, a further opportunity presented itself in 2014 to be part of a contingent of 11 New Zealand veterinarians travelling to Nepal to get ‘up close and personal’ with foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The Australian Department of Agriculture extended the invitation to Kiwi vets to participate in real-time FMD training run by the European Commission for the control of FMD in the Kathmandu Valley.

The field training was established through a newly signed Trans-Tasman agreement to cooperate and work together on FMD preparedness. The training honed critical skills in disease recognition, diagnosis and control, together with disease investigation. By examining animals infected with FMD, we gained invaluable experience that will be pivotal for the early detection and diagnosis of an outbreak in New Zealand.

During the week we visited Nepalese villages affected by FMD and observed the impact of the disease first-hand on farming households and communities. The villagers were very welcoming in opening up their homes to us – a humbling and rewarding experience. We examined sick animals and took samples for laboratory diagnosis. We also talked to farmers about their farming practices, with a view to determining how the disease arrived on these properties and what measures could be taken to prevent recurrence. Subsistence farming is an integral way of life in Nepal. People rely on their animals to put ‘food on the table’ so an outbreak of any disease can have devastating consequences in these communities. FMD is rarely fatal but the morbidity rate is high. The virus's longevity, together with shared housing and grazing, contributes to the rapid spread of infection. A perfect storm.

Victoria (right), with colleague Ceris Nieuwland, double bagging laboratory samples for analysis

Tethered housing in the Lele Valley in Nepal

Examining animals for FMD lesions in stalled housing

Victoria with colleagues and farmers in the Lele Valley discussing the impact of FMD on farmers' livelihoods

I had the privilege of travelling around Nepal after the course, to the east lowlands of Chitwan and the picturesque Lake Pokhara in the north with the majestic backdrop of the Annapurna ranges. It is with profound sadness that I watch the humanitarian crisis unfolding in this amazing country following the recent earthquakes. The Nepalese are strong and resilient people but they are in dire need of assistance from the international community.

The MPI veterinarians attending this course, along with future MPI course participants, have formed the exotic disease awareness group (EDAG). Our mandate is to raise the level of awareness across the MPI and industry groups about exotic diseases, particularly FMD, to work in tandem with the MPI group shaping a new Risk Organism and Response Programme and to determine how best to position ourselves for optimal use as the ‘standing army’ of MPI Verification Services veterinarians in the event of a disease incursion.

Working as a government veterinarian provides for a dynamic and stimulating career. Opportunities for travel, meeting and working with a broad cross-section of society, continuing professional development and being part of a dedicated group of like-minded colleagues is a rewarding experience. While clinical practice has its own incentives, my time in the public service has enabled me to stretch and strengthen many valuable skill sets for life.

And finally, never say never and be open to all opportunities: you just might surprise yourself.

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