Veterinary medicine budding in Vietnam


Hanoi, Vietnam-A vacation in Vietnam left Dr. Michele Gaspar, feline practitioner in Flossmoor, Ill., with a longing to return - this time as a visiting veterinarian.

Hanoi, Vietnam-A vacation in Vietnam left Dr. Michele Gaspar, feline practitioner in Flossmoor, Ill., with a longing to return - this time as a visiting veterinarian.

Bowled over by the beauty of the country and the friendliness of its people, Gaspar realized her mission extended beyond tourism.

"I decided the second time I went back, I was going to give something back. It's sometimes difficult as a small animal practitioner to find a place in world veterinary medicine," Gaspar says.

Companion animal ownership has skyrocketed in Vietnam in recent years. Note the packages of pet food lining the sidewalk.

But she found her place in the southeast Asian nation in 2003, by participating in an outreach project coordinated through Resource Exchange International (REI)-Vietnam in Colorado Springs that sent her to Vietnam.

She became the first small animal veterinarian to participate in the clinical program at the National Institute for Veterinary Research (NIVR) in Hanoi.

Gaspar spent eight days at the national institute instructing 12 veterinarians who are considered to be the country's "cream of the crop" - all have Ph.D.s and were trained as large animal practitioners and infectious disease researchers by many of the world's finest veterinary institutions, according to Gaspar. The downside: none had any small animal clinical training.

Her duties

So, to begin, she addressed infectious diseases and how such diseases present in small animals, as well as how to symptomatically control the disease. Then clinicians brought animals to the clinic, examining each on a case-by-case basis, which included parvovirus dogs, cats and dogs with traumatic injuries (one cat had fallen off a roof) and dogs with parasites.

The National Institute of Veterinary Research in Hanoi is where Dr. Michele Gaspar lectured to large animal practitioners about small animal medicine.

Because Gaspar worked through an interpreter, she says the language barrier among her veterinary colleagues was nonexistent.

Instead, she experienced a friendly atmosphere during her stay.

"We enjoyed the collegiality of not only the veterinarians in the class but the NIVR people in general. Vietnamese are very hospitable and incredibly hardworking."

She says it's commonplace for veterinary clinicians to come to their research institution at 7 a.m., work until 5, then they return home and moonlight until midnight or 1 a.m. to essentially do house calls on large and small animals in their neighborhoods.

Despite the dedication of its limited number of veterinary professionals, Vietnam still lags far behind largely in the area of vaccination of companion animals. Infectious diseases that are much less common in the United States - distemper, for example - is widespread. Parvovirus is the leading cause of death in dogs in Vietnam.

Medicine lacking

Spaying and neutering also are still unknown, simply because they're not provided, according to Gaspar.

That's not to say Vietnam is not on the road to veterinary progress. For starters, the country opened its first sparse veterinary clinic in the spring of 2003. "It's a bare bones clinic - even that is much more than they have. I consider it a vaccine and acute care clinic. They are able to place catheters, administer fluid therapy," Gaspar says.

While the clinic also has access to certain antibiotics, Gaspar says it still is in dire need of an X-ray machine and a processor.

Much of the current veterinary needs are tied to the otherwise positive effects of a recent burgeoning economy.

After what Vietnam refers to as the American War (and the United States refers to as the Vietnam War), Gaspar describes a country that went through "incredibly difficult" economic times where agriculture failed, the economy was essentially "in a state of collapse" and the people suffered tremendously.

Vietnam's position in world

Michele Gaspar, DVM, confers with NIVR veterinarians.

Then in 1987, a watershed of sorts occurred when the People's Republic of Vietnam opened up an economy and encouraged a capitalist system within a communist framework.

The economy hasn't stopped growing. As proof, Gaspar cites a conversation she had with a Vietnamese-born American plastic surgeon who briefed Gaspar on the hallmarks of a booming economy in third world countries. The first hallmark was dentistry, then small animal clinical medicine and then plastic surgery.

"What each of those entails is a middle class that has money to spend on what we would consider maybe to be regular practices within our culture, but in third world countries are considered to be luxuries," Gaspar says. "There's certainly a middle class now in Vietnam that can look outside themselves."

As the Asian society evolves, the country is also shedding some of its traditional customs. Often associated with Vietnam is the image of people eating dog, something that's fast losing its flavor among younger generations of Vietnamese, according to Gaspar.

Canine cuisine?

"It' s falling out of favor. It's considered to be an old custom; younger people are not interested in eating dog," she adds.

However, for the segment of society who does still dine on dogs, Gaspar notes one distinction: dogs that are eaten are not the same dogs Vietnamese keep as companion animals.

"It's a very interesting psychological split. There are food dogs and there are companion animal dogs - they're not the same," Gaspar says.

Companion animals, or "special friends" as the Vietnamese refer to them, are increasingly becoming an integral part of many Vietnamese households.

Elevated animal status

"Cats for Sale" sign in Hanoi (Meo is cat in Vietnamese).

"Pets are, one, considered to be companions, but two, they are considered to be status symbols, particularly pedigreed dogs," she says.

Animals are precious to the Vietnamese, primarily because it costs a significant amount of disposable income to purchase an animal. A monthly salary for a Vietnamese would be $30 U.S. Cats, for example, would cost anywhere from $3 to $10 U.S.

Evidence of the evolving status of animals is best recognized at local markets, where it's very common to see commercial brands of dog and cat food on the shelves.

As a result of the animal's rising status, the challenge, according to Gaspar, is to recruit more U.S. small animal clinicians to Vietnam, because, until now, most Vietnamese practitioners have been trained almost exclusively as large animal practitioners.

In need of veterinary volunteers

"As the population of Vietnam gentrifies and urbanizes with people who have a more westernized way of looking at things, they are going to need clinicians who are trained," Gaspar says. "Unfortunately, now, it's going to be a case-based learning."

She says they're definitely in need of veterinarians who truly enjoy sharing information, even very basic medications and vaccines, updated texts, instructors and equipment - specifically a radiology unit.

"What they don't need is overused equipment," Gaspar says. "Vietnamese government doesn't want their country to be a dumping ground for unusable medical equipment. What they need is equipment donated with at least 80 percent of its lifespan left."

She adds, "For small animal clinicians who are looking to give something back - and when you give you always get much more in return, this is an opportunity that's absolutely not to be overlooked. It's a healing experience for both cultures."

Logistically, Gaspar advises those interested to schedule at least a two-week stay, which would cost about $3,000 per person. Hotel costs average $30 per night for the equivalent of a three-star U.S. locale. The NIVR collaborative program is being handled in part by REI, which coordinates visas and other incidentals. Contact Brian Teel at REI at (719) 598-0559 for more information.

Planning a trip

Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.