More than 75% of people in Africa rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Most of this is made up of livestock such as chickens, cattle, goats, sheep, camels and donkeys.
Without proper medical care, many of these animals will suffer from treatable diseases. The same can be said for domestic animals such as dogs and cats. For military veterinarians in Africa, part of their mission is to assist the local populace with the health of their animals and protect the public health from diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
U.S. Army Maj. Sage Umphries, a veterinarian assigned to the 353rd Civil Affairs Functional Specialty Team, stationed at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, recently participated in Exercise Shared Accord 2022, a joint and bilateral training exercise that took place in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province July 11-27, 2022.
The medical readiness exercise (MEDREX), was planned and executed by the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, which allowed military medical personnel from the U.S. Army and their African partners to exchange medical practices, procedures and techniques that build and strengthen treatment capabilities, resulting in lasting relationships between medical professionals. Along with South Africa, seven other African nations – including Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Angola, Chad, Rwanda and Morocco – are slated to host MEDREXs during 2022.
Umphries joined the U.S. Army reserves in 2008 after graduating veterinary school at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2004. Her family has a long history of military service, including her grandmother, Mary Rita Umphries, who was an officer candidate school instructor during WWII, and applied multiple times to veterinary schools across the U.S.
“My grandmother was told that there was no place for women in veterinary medicine,” Umphries said. “So, she was the person who put my white coat on me.”
Umphries is now using her veterinary skills to leave a lasting impact on the health of livestock and domestic animals in Africa.
The first two weeks of the Shared Accord veterinary mission was to conduct door-to-door rabies vaccinations in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Teams were composed of South African National Defense Force (SANDF) and U.S. personnel. They advertised their service through the use of bullhorns, and in a two-week period, administered 5,370 rabies vaccinations throughout two districts.
“This was very hands-on as they were dealing with a rabies outbreak,” Umphries said.“Each district has an agricultural vet that is in charge of the area and some of the locations they needed to reach were just too dangerous. They wanted to vaccinate those animals to try and protect public health.”
The third week was dedicated to a spay/neuter clinic working alongside members of the South African Veterinarian institute at the Owen Sitole College of Agriculture, Empangeni Veterinary Clinic. The goal was to help the clinic catch up on the back-log of animals that were awaiting procedures.
Dr. Connie Swanepoel, a candidate officer with the South African Veterinarian institute, worked with Umphries to spay and neuter animals brought into the clinic. Swanepole works full-time as a veterinarian for the South African National Defense Force.
“I love my job, and I love the animals,” Swanepoel said.“You get a lot of great opportunities, like this. It’s always nice to work with vets who have been in practice longer; you pick up tricks of the trade on how to be more effective. I only graduated veterinary school two years ago, so I am always learning.”
Umphries enjoyed the experience of conducting the Shared Accord mission with the SANDF veterinary team.
“It’s great being able to see how another country practices medicine,” Umphries said. “Looking at what their capabilities are, finding out about their education process. They are all highly educated and well trained. It was a really good experience.”
This is Umphries second deployment to the Horn of Africa. This time around she is seeing many more missions that take her outside of East Africa.
“We are getting asked for herd health veterinary engagements from other countries, as well as the work we are doing in Djibouti,” she said.“One of our main goals is to improve the overall herd health, as well as longevity and mortality of the animals.”
Through exercises like Shared Accord, the work that veterinarians such as Umphries, Swanepoel and military Civil Affairs teams are providing to the agricultural environment in Africa will help shape the overall future of the continent's livestock health.