From Camperdown to Bidyadanga
The Faculty of Veterinary Science is expanding its focus – linking dog health to wider health issues in remote communities. Rachel Sharples looks at initiatives in remote Indigenous towns and on campus.
Dr Graeme Brown has travelled to places most of us have never heard of: Bidyadanga in Western Australia, Ti Tree, Yuendumu and Nguiu in the Northern Territory. He goes there to study dogs with infectious diseases most of us wish we’d never heard of: giardia, salmonella, campylobacter, intestinal parasites, mange … It’s not a glamorous job, but for Australia’s remote desert communities, it’s a necessary one. Infectious diseases pose serious health concerns not only to dogs but also to the communities in which they live.
Healthy dogs, healthy communities
It’s common to hear the phrase ‘dogs are like family’ in Indigenous communities. Research shows that despite the sometimes outward appearance of neglect, dogs play an integral role in these groups, and the human-dog bond is very strong. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them. When Dr Brown conducted his PhD research in a desert community of 800 people northwest of Alice Springs, he counted 550 dogs. The sheer volume means diseases like salmonella, giardia and campylobacter are easily spread.
Dr Brown attributes this in part to what he describes as the “degradation of the ecosystem”, particularly evident in the harsh conditions of desert environments where poor nutrition has impacted natural cycles and immune systems.
It’s easy to think that improving dogs’ health in such areas is simply a matter of culling or educating, but the situation is more complex. The current poor state of dog health is the result of many factors, such as inadequate access to veterinary services, socio-economic disadvantage, and lack of cross-cultural awareness in animal health education programs.
These are the challenges that face the Veterinary Science faculty, as they seek to promote and protect veterinary public health in Indigenous communities.
One of the faculty’s initiatives is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project called Healthy Dogs, Healthy Communities – Dr Brown is part of this team. Together, they are investigating ways to improve canine health in remote Indigenous communities and bring health benefits to the wider community. Across six sites in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, the team conducts dog health and welfare surveys. The data is then used to develop culturally appropriate education interventions to improve the health and welfare of these dogs.
Dr Brown’s expertise in infectious diseases is an example of the project’s interdisciplinary approach. Other contributions are made by team members with a focus on communication and education. Dr Robert Dixon, the project leader, specialises in animal welfare and public health. Dr Sophie Constable and Dr Rose Dixon develop knowledge-sharing programs that are culturally appropriate and specific to each community. In one region they commissioned female artists to paint stories conveying information on dog health. They also work with local environmental health workers to produce appropriate promotional material.
Layla Schrieber, an Indigenous masters student, is studying the epidemiology of human and canine streptococci in a North Queensland community. Based ‘in community’, Schrieber finds that research is only part of the job description.
“The larger role I find myself doing is supporting local animal health workers. We’ve started dog health days, which we promote by going into schools the week before and getting the kids to look at parasites under the microscope. It helps get them excited about the day. These kinds of community relationships are important.”
Schrieber is acutely aware that making a connection with people is key to her role. “You have to build a relationship with someone in order for them to listen to what you’re saying. And you’ve got to listen to them too, because they know exactly what’s going to work. It’s about them trusting you to help them put it together.”
Indigenous student programs
At present there is a distinct lack of Indigenous veterinarians, especially from (or working in) remote Indigenous communities. The 2006 ARC grant that founded the Healthy Dogs, Healthy Communities project incorporated into its funding structure the employment of Indigenous postgraduate students. Layla was the only Indigenous student to apply. Advertised today, Dr Brown believes the uptake would be higher, but it does highlight the need to attract Indigenous students to the veterinary profession.
The Faculty of Veterinary Science is also concerned about this issue. After an admissions review process in 1998 the faculty set targets to increase its level of Indigenous student participation; showing leadership in this area long before the University created specific policies on Indigenous enrolments.
Dean of the Veterinary Science faculty Professor Rosanne Taylor explains: “Indigenous students are under-represented across the University. We identified early on that as a faculty we needed to make a much greater difference to our Indigenous peoples. It was clear there was a real deficit of Indigenous graduates in the veterinary and animal science professions, and alternative pathways into the faculty were required.”
The faculty now sets aside 12 percent of its places each year for Indigenous, rural and disadvantaged students. Indigenous students enter through the Koori Centre’s Cadigal Program. Retention rates have been high: 17 students have come through the program so far. Professor Taylor believes this can be attributed to Koori Centre support, flexible teaching, in-house leadership programs and a small, friendly faculty environment. Two students will graduate from the Cadigal Program this year and the faculty’s first Indigenous PhD student is due to graduate in 2011.
Professor Taylor admits they’ve never been able to entirely fill the Indigenous quota, but it’s something they hope to improve. They plan to introduce an Indigenous scholarships program, and develop outreach programs to attract students from the most remote and disadvantaged communities. A key element will be the establishment of mentors who can act as ambassadors – students keen to develop relationships with remote Indigenous communities and support Indigenous people during their transition to university.
Mentoring is something Schrieber has given a lot of thought to. She recalls her first visit to the University of Sydney campus. She was alone, she didn’t know anyone, and she was dismayed to see other students already conversing in their own groups. Her first inclination was to “run off, just get out of there”. Fortunately she had the insight and courage to persevere.
“I’m an educated woman from an urban area, so imagine if you were from a remote community, on your own in a strange city full of foreign-looking buildings. You’d just leave and never come back. Mentoring is something I’d definitely like to do, to make sure nobody has to feel like that. I know that once I got to know people, they were wonderful. The University was excellent and I had a great time.”
Nathan Hallet, an Indigenous student now in his fourth year of the Animal and Veterinary Bioscience degree agrees – mentoring helped him immensely when he started at university and he is now eager to mentor others. “These programs are really important because there’s still a lot of stigma in Indigenous communities that says you can’t achieve. If we can visit these communities and show examples of Indigenous students who have gone on to succeed in the veterinary profession, I think it will make a huge difference.”
Veterinary Science Foundation
Outreach and mentoring programs do have costs attached and the Veterinary Science Foundation plays a crucial role in meeting some of these needs. Established in 2000, the foundation aims to support the faculty’s vision of being a world leader in veterinary education and research, focused on the health and welfare of animals, and providing a community service. Over the last nine years the foundation has raised more than $9 million for the faculty. This contributed to upgrades of the university teaching hospitals at the Camperdown and Camden campuses, helped fund research into the Tasmanian devil facial tumour, and helped purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the faculty’s clinics and teaching hospitals.
One of the foundation’s priorities over the coming year is to help the faculty grow its Indigenous student cohort, especially from remote communities. “The foundation recognises the absolute importance of education for our Indigenous peoples,” says Deborah McMurtrie, president of the foundation. “We want to identify and encourage kids from remote communities who might never have considered a university education.”
Next up: an Indigenous scholarships program, funded through philanthropy and corporate support. The foundation’s key role will be to identify Indigenous ambassadors who can develop relationships in remote communities, identify people who may be interested in veterinary and animal science, and act as mentors to Indigenous students. “We know there are significant costs associated with university, especially if you’re coming from a remote area,” says McMurtrie. “The scholarships will help cover living expenses and extra tuition costs, as well as mentoring and pastoral care; basically whatever is needed to look after the wellbeing and lifestyle of our students.”
With the faculty’s first Indigenous students now graduating, Indigenous involvement in the veterinary and animal science professions is going to increase. Through their support of veterinary public health and research work in Indigenous communities, and Indigenous student programs, the Veterinary Science Foundation and the Faculty of Veterinary Science are determined to make a difference.
Professor Taylor adds that, “we’re developing multiple, interlocking ways to lift awareness and graduate-readiness to manage animal health in Indigenous communities, as well as developing the next generation of Indigenous veterinary professionals”.
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