In the last one decade, Bangladesh’s livestock sector increased by around 8 crore to 43.24 crore, and burgeoning further – changing the agri landscape dominated by crop cultivation, boosting the national protein supply chain and generating employment in rural Bangladesh.

But an acute shortage of veterinary professionals stands in the way of the changes, deterring cattle farming from being a sustainable sector and, ultimately, leaving the entire protein supply chain at risk.

Despite the steep rise in cattle farming over the years, the country so far has only some 8,025 veterinarians, according to the Bangladesh Veterinary Council.

Interestingly, the current veterinary medicine market in Bangladesh is Tk3,000 crore with an annual growth of 8%-12% – raising the question who is actually prescribing the medicines.

To find the answer, take the case of Naogaon Bhimpur farmer Golam Mustafa – a small cultivator who rears 5-6 cows besides producing crops.

Last year, Golam Mustafa had to call the local vet, Sirajul Islam, when one of his bullocks fell ill. Despite only having a three-month training in cattle rearing and some basic veterinary knowledge, Sirajul administered an injection to the cow. The animal worth around Tk1.50 lakh fell to the ground within minutes of the shot and had to be slaughtered subsequently. The farmer sold the meat to a local market.

Sirajul is not registered as a veterinarian. But he serves as a full-time rural vet thanks to the acute vet shortage in rural Bangladesh. Farmers also turn to unregistered veterinarians like Sirajul when their cattle fall ill or become injured since transporting cattle to the upazila livestock office is a gruelling task and the treatment is also not pocket-friendly.

Illegal, so what?

In Naogaon, there are 99 unions with  around 21 lakh cattle. But the district has only 15 veterinarians available.

The vets say since they have to be in office, they cannot go from farm to farm. Instead, primary treatment is usually carried out by people who are not registered but have some basic training, and animals with more serious issues are taken to the animal hospital.

But the authorities say it is “illegal” to conduct such medical practice without a valid Bangladesh Veterinary Council certificate after completing studies in specific subjects.

“These unregistered ‘vets’ are not supposed to treat the animals. But we do not have the manpower to provide adequate services to the farmers. And they are just cashing in on it,” Mohammad Mahir Uddin, Naogaon livestock officer, told The Business Standard.

Similar to Naogaon, the veterinary treatment in Bogura also portrays a grim picture. Bogura’s Sherpur livestock official Raihan Islam said they are seriously shorthanded for 2.5 lakh cattle in the upazila. He said there are around 150 quacks in his upazila.

This has been a common situation also in other districts, such as Khulna, Rajshahi, Lakshipur, Dinajpur and Joypurhat.

For the past three years, Khorshed Alam, a village vet in Mougachi union of Rajshahi’s Mohanpur upazila, has been treating animals. He does not have any medical training or certification, but serves four clients a day on an average.

Majnu Pramanik, known locally as the “village vet” of the Rahbal area of Shibganj, Bogura, has been providing medical services for 23 years and plans to continue doing the “Kobiraji” (quackery) for the rest of his life.

From farm to fork – polluting entire protein chain

The indiscriminate use of medicines, particularly antibiotics, by local quacks and pharmacists to treat cattle diseases poses a risk to public health, according to health experts.

They said the medicines can easily enter the food chain through various avenues.

Due to a lack of oversight by authorities and a shortage of veterinarians at the local level, rural farmers often turn to antibiotics because they are easily available in pharmacies and can provide quick results.

Antibiotics have a withdrawal period, during which they should not be used in order to ensure that they do not accumulate in cattle milk.

However, in some cases, residues of antibiotics can still be found in milk even after this period. The presence of high concentrations of antibiotics above acceptable limits in dairy products can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans and make consumers vulnerable to bacterial diseases.

According to Professor Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the Pharmacology Department at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, giving antibiotics to chickens or using them to fatten cows has harmful effects on both the livestock and humans.

He referred to a veterinary painkiller that caused the vultures to vanish, and said, “We are simply heading towards an antibiotic apocalypse.”

Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory agent and painkiller, was introduced around the end of the 20th century in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh to treat sick cattle.

But when the cattle’s carcasses were eaten by vultures, the birds contracted a fatal kidney condition. Within a few years, vulture numbers had declined by a staggering 99.9% across south Asia.

Livestock boom with negligent veterinary care

According to the Department of Livestock Services FY22 report,  the country has 2.47 crore cows, 15 lakh buffaloes, 37 lakh sheep, 2.67 crore goats, 31.18 crore chickens and 6.38 crore ducks.

As per the livestock services department, meat production has more than tripled and egg production has nearly tripled in the last one decade.

Besides, the number of commercial cattle farms is steadily increasing, showed the report.

But, the number of veterinary doctors to serve the growing industry fell far behind. Livestock data show there is only one veterinarian for every nine unions on an average.

Dr Md Nazmul Hoque, deputy director of the animal health wing of the Department of Livestock Services, said the current number of veterinary doctors is much less than what is required. If it can be increased several times, it will be possible to increase the scope of services.

The livestock industry has been a driving force in Bangladesh’s economy, tackling issues such as malnutrition, unemployment, female empowerment, and improving the fertility of agricultural land, while also boosting the nation’s talent and earning foreign exchange.

The Department of Livestock Services reported that the livestock sector contributes 1.47% to Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with a GDP growth rate of 3.47%. Approximately 20% of the country’s population is directly involved in the livestock industry.

Dr Md Monjur Kadir, president of the Bangladesh Veterinary Council, said, “Due to the lack of sufficient registered doctors, local quacks are providing medical services in villages and towns. The government has no alternative to increase the number of doctors to ensure the service.”

The agriculture sector as a whole is collaborating to achieve the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations.

The Business Standard correspondents Bulbul Habib in Rajshahi, Sana Ullah Sanu in Lakshipur, Khorshed Alam in Bogura and Awal Sheikh in Khulna contributed to the report.

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