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Veterinarian Diplomat

Veterinarian DiplomatWhile leading a disease control project in the Mideast, a Tufts veterinarian saw an opportunity to use his expertise to help a troubled region. No. Grafton, Mass.

No. Grafton, Mass. [05.07.03] When foot-and-mouth disease broke out in Jordan in 1999, the Middle East region had more than a health problem on their hands. In order to control the spread of the disease, nations with a long history of conflict had to work together to combat the situation. It was a tough task, but with the help of a Tufts veterinarian the diverse team of scientists assigned to the project managed to overcome their differences in the name of public health.

"For more than three years, Dr. George Saperstein, 52, was both veterinarian and diplomat as he coordinated a $2.3 million project to improve the diagnosis and control of disease in Mideast animals," reported the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "Succeeding meant bringing together people whose homelands have been in conflict for decades."

Until a few years ago, Saperstein - a large animal veterinarian and chair of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at Tufts' School of Veterinary Medicine - had never even been to the Middle East. But that changed in 1999, when the Tufts veterinarian began working with a team of top animal disease control experts from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan on a project to prevent brucellosis and foot-and-mouth disease in the region.

"Control of animal disease is a global issue," Saperstein - whose project was funded under the Middle East Regional Cooperative Program by the United States Agency for International Development- told the Gazette.

Preventing the spread of foot-and-mouth and brucellosis was a difficult endeavor involving not only science but geopolitics and diplomacy. The team of experts - which also sought to improve the neonatal health of sheep and goats - did not have the benefit of transnational controls available at the borders of countries like the United States.

"Here, we can control animal movements across our borders by requiring health certificates and using quarantine," Saperstein told the Gazette. "When animals go to slaughter, we have the opportunity to test them."

The Tufts expert and his team faced special difficulties when it came to controlling the flow of the livestock. In the Mideast, nomadic groups called the Bedouins control much of the livestock and are used to freely crossing borders to reach favorable land where their herds can graze. The dispersed herding range, coupled with other factors, make the region a challenging one to manage.

"Diseases get a free piggyback ride on hosts, and there is quite a lot of ritual slaughter done by the common man," Saperstein told the Gazette.

Saperstein and his team faced logistical as well as political setbacks.. Scientists from the opposing Middle East entities not only had to put aside their cultural differences to combat the problem, but also had to converse in a common language - English - which was not their own.

"I didn't consider the politics of administering the work and I wasn't astute enough to understand the politics behind decision making in this region," Saperstein told the Gazette. "The bureaucracy in these countries is very different from ours. The motivating forces are very different."

Despite the obstacles, Saperstein and his group were able to succeed both scientifically and politically. After foot-and-mouth first broke out in Jordan in 1999, veterinarians sent samples to a veterinary institute in Israel, which identified the disease and helped to shorten the outbreak. Israelis also trained Palestinian and Jordanian veterinarians in diagnostic techniques at no cost.

"In his view," reported the Gazette, "the project's overarching success is the cooperative atmosphere that developed."

The Tufts veterinarian told the newspaper, "It was very rewarding. I felt I was using veterinary medicine, which I love, to make peace in the world."


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