Weiqin Chee, a final year veterinary student from USYD, reflects on his time in northern Laos in February 2014
The opportunity of participating in foot mouth disease (FMD) vaccination campaigns and helping individual farmers were what initially drew me to Laos, but what I got was so much more than expected.
During my stay I was able to sit in on the 11th Meeting of the Upper Mekong Working Group organised by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). It was an eye opening experience to see the strategy for FMD eradication on a ‘big picture’ scale and the need for a joint effort by all the countries in the Mekong region. It was also very interesting to see the control strategies being presented by each country and the difficulties faced by the individual countries due to their own unique geography, demographics and level of economic development. I now understand the importance of good quality research as policies are highly dependent on the statistics and conclusions generated and have the ability to influence the lives of a large number of people.
After the meeting I was able to participate in two field vaccination and blood collection drives for FMD monitoring in both Xieng Khoung and Luang Prabang provinces. These injected a sense of reality into what was discussed in the regional meeting I had attended. Vaccination targets and policies whilst easy to list on paper in an air-conditioned meeting room are in reality difficult to achieve on the ground. I got to experience a little part of what challenges vaccination teams go through in order to gain access to cattle and to witness the bond and trust fostered between the local district veterinary workers and the villagers.
Just before I left, I managed to tag along with a team to investigate a suspected haemorrhagic septicaemia (HS) outbreak. It was heart-warming to see the concern livestock owners had for the wellbeing of the cattle. One farmer hacked down trees to build a makeshift shelter around a down cow and went a fair distance to a small stream in order to obtain water for it. It was a very emotional experience having the villagers welcome us with simple meals and going through the traditional blessing ceremony or ‘Baci’, which has deep roots in Lao culture.
As an international student from Singapore studying in Australia, it was very difficult to comprehend some of the disparities that persist despite this day and age we live in. This trip has definitely made me appreciate the many privileges taken for granted such as having an education, access to healthcare and easy telecommunications services at the touch of a button. I would definitely return to Laos if offered that chance and strongly recommend it to other students.
Photo: Weiqin (first on left) at the OIE’s FMD Upper Mekong working group meeting