Amplifying Advocacy: A veterinary student's journey in addressing pressing issues in the veterinary industry

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One dvm360® student ambassador shares what it was like to participate in the Legislative Fly-in with the American Veterinary Medical Association

This past April, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the annual Legislative Fly-In hosted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in Washington, DC. This conference equips veterinary professionals with the knowledge and skills to advocate for pressing issues within the veterinary industry. The experience was enlightening, empowering, and crucial for the betterment of our profession, patients, and society.

Raisa Vélez-Contreras with Jose Arce, DVM, the immediate past president of the AVMA

Raisa Vélez-Contreras with Jose Arce, DVM, the immediate past president of the AVMA

During the conference, we participated in various workshops that focused on sharpening our advocacy skills. Among the various advocacy strategies discussed, grassroots advocacy stood out to me the most. It emphasizes the power of collective action and highlights the strength that comes from a larger number of advocates. By mobilizing a significant quantity of individuals who are passionate about a specific issue, we can increase the visibility of that issue and amplify its importance in the eyes of policymakers. Grassroots advocacy recognizes that change can be driven from the ground up, and our collective voice can bring about meaningful results.

In addition to grassroots advocacy, another concept that resonated with me was grasstops advocacy. This approach focuses on forming quality relationships with influential individuals and advocates who can help raise awareness and champion our cause. By engaging with key stakeholders, such as policymakers, industry leaders, and influential community members, we can leverage their support and expertise to advance our advocacy efforts. Grasstops advocacy recognizes that building strong relationships and gaining influential allies can significantly enhance the impact of our message and contribute to positive change.

These immersive workshops and conversations lead to being briefed on key policy issues that are affecting veterinary medicine so that we could apply these newly learned skills to effectively drive our message across to policymakers. After comprehensive discussions about these topics, we were assigned to meet with members of Congress from our respective states to advocate on these topics. Two vital bills emerged as focal points for our advocacy efforts: the Healthy Dog Importation Act (HDIA) and the Combating Illicit Xylazine Act (CIXA). In addition, we advocated for an increase in funding for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD).6

Healthy Dog Importation Act

Imported dogs present a significant public health concern, as they can introduce various diseases into the United States. The HDIA seeks to implement stricter regulations such as microchipping, health certificates, and vaccination records to be issued by a licensed veterinarian.7 These measures aim to protect both human and animal health, ensuring a safer environment for all.

Currently, the CDC only requires a rabies vaccination certificate for animals that are imported from countries that are considered at high risk for rabies. These animals only encompass 6% of all imported dogs which means that there are approximately 950,000 animals that can gain entry to the United States and there are no current requirements for vaccinations or documentation set in place for this population of animals.7

Establishing these regulations is especially important regarding highly contagious diseases such as African Swine Fever (ASF). ASF is a serious viral disease that affects swine populations and although ASF has not been reported in the United States, the recent reintroduction of the disease in the Dominican Republic and Haiti raises significant concerns for our pork industry. Strict regulations are currently in place, prohibiting the importation of pork products into the United States. These regulations are necessary to prevent the spread of ASF from the Dominican Republic and Haiti to the mainland, particularly through Puerto Rico, given its proximity and common travel routes to the United States.1,2

Being from Puerto Rico, I have witnessed how many pets easily pass through security without the verification of pertinent documentation. It is disconcerting to note that there are no stringent regulations in place for dog importation, which poses a potential risk for the transmission of ASF. This is a highly resilient virus that can survive for extended periods in dog bedding and can also be passed through the feces of animals that have consumed contaminated pork products. Considering the significant number of dogs being imported into the United States without proper physical examinations, it is alarming to think about the potential for ASF to be introduced to a region that has never experienced this disease before.7

From left to right: Aden Rouse (2nd-year veterinary student at NC State CVM), Zach Cochran (2nd-year student at University of Pennsylvania CVM), myself, Rebecca Stinson, DVM (one of the founders of the Carolina Equine Hospital and the past Vice President of the AVMA), Bardia Asefnia (Congresswoman's legislative assistant), and José Linares, DVM (poultry veterinarian and manager of veterinarian services at CEVA Animal Health LLC).

From left to right: Aden Rouse (2nd-year veterinary student at NC State CVM), Zach Cochran (2nd-year student at University of Pennsylvania CVM), myself, Rebecca Stinson, DVM (one of the founders of the Carolina Equine Hospital and the past Vice President of the AVMA), Bardia Asefnia (Congresswoman's legislative assistant), and José Linares, DVM (poultry veterinarian and manager of veterinarian services at CEVA Animal Health LLC).

Combating Illicit Xylazine Act

The second bill we discussed was the CIXA. Xylazine, an FDA-approved sedative, plays a crucial role in veterinary medicine in the context of large and exotic animals, production medicine, and research species. Access to this drug is particularly important for cattle since there is no practical alternative for sedation in these animals. The bill’s primary objective is to safeguard the well-being of animals and protect the veterinary professionals who care for them. Recently, this drug has unfortunately been abused and trafficked, becoming an emerging threat to public health. This bill aims to combat the illicit trafficking of xylazine by enforcing Schedule III penalties on those involved in trafficking or using xylazine for non-veterinary purposes while simultaneously ensuring continued veterinary access to the drug.5

Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank

Finally, we discussed FARAD’s vital role in protecting the food supply by providing critical information on drug withdrawal times and safety. The program has been operating with limited funding, hindering its ability to grow, invest in technology, and retain expert scientists. We urged Congress to increase FARAD's annual authorization from $2.5 million to $5 million, enabling it to fulfill its mission effectively and safeguard the food supply.4

It is crucial to highlight the importance of our presence in activities such as legislative conferences and advocacy efforts. As veterinary professionals, we possess a unique perspective on the concept of "One Health" and its impact on society. The concept of One Health recognizes that the well-being of humans, animals, and environment are intricately linked. While we are experts in treating all animals, our comprehensive education equips us with a broad understanding of various disciplines beyond animal health. This empowers us to address issues that extend beyond traditional veterinary medicine. By leveraging our knowledge and expertise, we can contribute meaningfully to discussions and policies related to public health, environmental conservation, food safety, and more.

In conclusion

Our presence in legislative activities provides an opportunity to emphasize the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health, demonstrating our dedication to protecting not only animal welfare but also the health and well-being of communities. As veterinary professionals, we are at the forefront of this interdisciplinary approach, as we understand the interdependencies and potential risks that arise from the health of animals and their impact on humans and the environment. Our ability to understand and contribute to topics beyond animal health makes us invaluable advocates for policies that promote a holistic and sustainable approach to healthcare.

Attending the legislative conference and advocating for change within the veterinary industry was a transformative experience. It deepened my understanding of emerging issues within the veterinary industry and equipped me with the tools to be an influential advocate. Armed with these newfound skills and knowledge, I aspire to become a more effective advocate for veterinary medicine. Furthermore, I intend to apply these strategies to address other critical issues within the veterinary industry, such as promoting diversity and accessibility in veterinary medicine, ensuring equitable care for underserved communities, and advocating for animal welfare. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals, engage with policymakers, and network with like-minded individuals who share a passion for veterinary medicine. Moving forward, I am confident that my enhanced advocacy skills will allow me to contribute meaningfully to the advancement and well-being of the veterinary profession and the animals and communities we serve.

The knowledge gained and advocacy skills developed during this conference will undoubtedly shape my future as a veterinarian. I am committed to championing the well-being of animals, promoting public health, and advancing the veterinary profession for the betterment of society.

References

  1. African Swine Fever (ASF). Usda.gov. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/swine-disease-information/african-swine-fever/seminar
  2. African swine fever FAQs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.cbp.gov/travel/international-visitors/agricultural-items/african-swine-fever-faqs
  3. AVMA congressional advocacy network. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://avmacan.avma.org/
  4. 2023 Farm Bill AVMA Priority: Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD). American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A02c56c9d-234e-4eca-ab0a-86a194c81e64&viewer%21megaVerb=group-discover (Accessed: 15 May 2023).
  5. Combating Illicit Xylazine Act (H.R. 1839/S. 993). American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed June2, 2023. https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A9adad4a9-20bd-49b7-ab7e-8f1ab352d9f7&viewer%21megaVerb=group-discover (Accessed: 15 May 2023).
  6. AVMA members press Congress for illicit xylazine, dog importation laws. American Veterinary Medical Association. April 25, 2023. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.avma.org/news/avma-members-press-congress-illicit-xylazine-dog-importation-laws
  7. Healthy Dog Importation Act (H.R. 1184/S. 502). American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A42cead70-c507-4549-8163-1f5de9ede2e2&viewer%21megaVerb=group-discover
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