Gabriel Varga leads the team that developed AFSCAN – the African Small Companion Animal Network, which aims to ‘transform the veterinary landscape across Africa’. Dr Varga's veterinary journey began in Košice, which at the time was part of Czechoslovakia; he is now director of business operations for Zoetis north Europe
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COMPANION animal veterinary care in Africa faces great challenges, but, as chair of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Foundation (WSAVAF), I hope that a project known as the African Small Companion Animal Network (AFSCAN) will transform the veterinary landscape across Africa. Although the idea was the brainchild of the WSAVAF team, it was my own experience, qualifying as a vet in eastern Europe just after the fall of the Iron Curtain that has shaped my career and driven my passion for supporting the global development of the profession.
My interest in veterinary medicine stems from growing up in a medical family in Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia, which at that time was still part of Communist Czechoslovakia. My father was a medical doctor and I spent a great deal of time with him at his hospital clinic; and, for as long as I can remember, I had a passion for biology and medicine.
I qualified with a DVM from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacology in Kosice, in 1985, and subsequently worked at the university's small animal clinic – one of only two small animal clinics in a city of 270,000 people. Under the Communist regime, pet care was not encouraged. I also lectured in internal medicine at the university for more than 12 years.
Before the Iron Curtain fell, our access to Western books was limited, but I did manage to read James Herriot's books and really enjoyed them. During 1988, I heard that he was to open the WSAVA congress in Harrogate the following April. I decided to try to get there in the hope of meeting him. In those days, this was no mean feat.
I didn't have enough money to register but, fortunately, I was allowed to attend as a guest. Travel was a challenge, too. My route from Czechoslovakia took me through Yugoslavia (as it was then), Austria, Germany and Belgium, but I made it to Harrogate and was able to participate in WSAVA activities at the congress where I met many leading figures from the veterinary world, including, I'm very pleased to say, ‘James Herriot’ himself.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, everything changed. I wanted to develop my own skills and that of the profession in my country, so I took an internship in Belgium to learn more about small animal veterinary associations and how they could accelerate veterinary development. When I returned home in 1990, I got together with five colleagues and we established the first small animal veterinary association in eastern Europe – the Czech and Slovak Small Animal Veterinary Association. In 1991, our association became a member of the WSAVA and the Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Associations (FECAVA) and I became its representative.
In this role, I started to start build a large network of contacts – lecturers, sponsors and colleagues – many of whom are still my friends today. We secured sponsorship for the first CPD meetings to be held in eastern Europe, and this was the start of the WSAVA's fantastic continuing education programme that brings world-class CPD to more than 30 countries around the world.
Since those days, I have held numerous roles in industry, but my passion for small animal veterinary associations and the positive role they can play is undimmed. As president of the WSAVA from 2002 to 2004, I focused on helping countries in Latin America to set up and grow their own small animal veterinary associations – a move that has had a demonstrable impact.
As president of the WSAVA Foundation, I am proud to lead the AFSCAN project, which has the potential to be transformational for the development of companion animal veterinary care across the continent. Zoetis, my employer, is our major supporter and without its vision and sponsorship AFSCAN would not exist.
Africa is the world's second largest continent, containing some of its fastest growing countries. Unfortunately, it is also plagued by many of the world's most dangerous diseases and, while vets work hard, their numbers are few, they are geographically isolated and they are often held back by a lack of training, CPD and support. They need support to help to drive advances in veterinary care for all species and this will improve the health and welfare of both animals and humans. AFSCAN is helping in four key areas – association building, education, scientific projects and One Health.
We are helping five African countries (Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda) to form and develop their own small animal veterinary associations, which can ultimately become members of the WSAVA and, in fact, the Small Animal Veterinary Association of Nigeria (SAVAN) became the first new African association to join at this year's WSAVA World Congress. It was quite a moment for everyone involved with the project.
We are bringing free access to high-quality online distance learning resources thanks to the support of the BSAVA, Computers 4 Africa, Kruuse, the North American Veterinary Community, Circa Health and Vetstream.
We will soon be providing vets working in African universities with funding to undertake locally relevant investigations related to small animal disease or welfare. We will also fund African vet students to spend time in research laboratories through an extramural bursary scheme thanks to support from Petplan.
We are supporting One Health projects in Africa, particularly in the area of rabies control in cooperation with OIE and Mission Rabies.
AFSCAN is run by its board, with members drawn from our supporters and sponsors who contribute generously to our work. In the 18 months since Phase 1 of the project was launched at BSAVA congress in 2014, we have achieved a great deal. We have also turned the global spotlight on the needs of our colleagues in Africa.
There is no doubt we still face many challenges, including the sheer size of Africa and the huge variation in local conditions. Finding the right people in Africa to drive the project forward is vital, because our vision is to create sustainable change and we will only deliver this by creating hubs of excellence through partnerships with colleagues on the ground, who share our outlook and drive to make a lasting difference.
I am confident that companion animal veterinary care in Africa is moving forward in a positive direction and I feel privileged to have this opportunity to ‘give back’ to the profession and our colleagues there having benefited from the support the WSAVA members gave to our fledgling veterinary association in eastern Europe 24 years ago.
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