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Ugandan Vets Look Beyond Animals

GULU DICTRICT, UGANDA -- One small drop of antibiotic in each of the chicken's eyes. Such a simple action ... and one people here hope will improve the overall economic health of this war torn region.

The Gulu District, in northern Uganda, suffered as a result of a civil war which began in the late 1980s. There was insurgency and fighting in the area and many of the villages were damaged or destroyed.

Twenty three years later, there are still more than 2 million internally displaced people here. As a result, there are much fewer livestock in this area than the local vets would like to see.

But, soldiers and sailors with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade deployed from Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, have teamed up with local veterinarians here in an effort to change that. They're taking part in a veterinary civil action project, called a VetCAP.

"Some villages where we treat, we will see hundreds and hundreds of chickens each day," said Gulu District vet Wanume Mutiibwa. "In this district, we see maybe 30 a day. But if we can help get the animals healthy, we can help [them] to improve the amount of livestock here."

Dr. Obbo Boneifance traveled from southern Uganda to assist the Gulu District Council department of veterinary services and animal industry during the VetCAP. He explained that a poultry disease common to Uganda and the tropics, referred to as "New Castle Disease," has a mortality rate of between 90 and 100 percent.

"We are treating the poultry with eye drops to prevent New Castle Disease," he said. "One attack of New Castle Disease can cause a heavy death in the poultry population," which he said would be devastating for a sub-district with so few chickens and turkeys to begin with.

"This is phase two of a four phase operation that began in January," said Army Maj. Nina DiPinto, a veterinarian on loan to the 354th CAB from the 422nd Medical Detachment Veterinary Services, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. "We're hoping to improve the overall health of the village animals while training the vets here."

During phase two, DiPinto said vets have been treating and vaccinating cattle, livestock, poultry and canines. The medications administered range from the treatment and prevention of trypanosomiasis and rabies to the eradication of intestinal parasites such as worms and liver flukes. She explained that the overarching goal of this VetCAP is to establish a program for care that can be carried on in the region without long-term assistance from the United States.

Obbo also explained that keeping the animals healthy has health benefits for the people of the villages as well. "We are killing the Tsetse fly. The diseases caused by the Tsetse flies can be transmitted from cattle to humans, so while we are treating the cattle, we are also preventing sleeping sickness in humans," he explained.

Doctors Obbo and Mutiibwa say they remain hopeful their work will have a lasting impact on not only the physical health of the region but the economic health as well.

"There is a potential for a heavy beef industry here," said Mutiibwa. "You can see the pastures, you can see the wealth of land. What we have lacked is the key to turn on the resources that can rejuvenate our economy, but our potential is so great."

The Gulu District Council vet went on to say "These animals are good for meat production; they are hearty. The potential for export is very good," if they can work to improve the health of the animals "and it is possible that we can rejuvenate the industry."

Mutiibwa is affectionately referred to as "The Dreamer" by the other vets his team because, he said, he's "not afraid to realize how great our country once was and dream about how great it can be again."

Army Staff Sgt. Sean Berk, a civil affairs specialist with the team, can see the short term benefits this VetCAP will have for the region. "By doing VetCAPs, we build their capacity to leave the IDP camps and move back to their villages. We're helping to make that possible."

This cooperative effort is partially funded by the U.S Agency for International Development, whose mission in Uganda seeks to "increase and diversify commercial agricultural production and increase Uganda's competitiveness in local and international markets." This, according to the USAID mission statement, can be accomplished partially by improving agricultural productivity.

According to USAID, more than 9 million people in Uganda live off less than $1 a day. Most of those people belong to households that depend on subsistence agriculture.

The VetCAP mission is a hand up for the region, rather than a hand out. The mission of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa is to help Africans solve African challenges. By working with the Ugandan vets, the villagers are better able to gain a sense of community, knowing that long after the Americans have left, they will still be able to receive care.

"We work side by side with vets from Gulu and from the university in Kampala," said Berk. "It's important that they're involved because it helps build trust and puts a local face on everything."

"This program is very good for the community," stressed Obbo. "If you treat all the diseased animals and the growth rate increases, the animals will be sold and in turn help the common man in the village. That is very good that we can make a contribution to that."

Added Mutiibwa, "we have so much hope for the future now."