OVC alumna Dr. Keisha Harris returns to U of G after a summer spent in Ghana with Veterinarians Without Borders
October 03, 2023
September for students often represents a fresh start and new beginnings, but for Dr. Keisha Harris, a recent graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program, September marks the end of a summer experience spent with Veterinarians Without Borders/Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VWB) before returning to OVC to complete the second part of her dual degree, a Master of Public Health.
VWB is a non-profit organization that focuses on animal health, while also improving the health of communities where they work. The global organization works with on-the-ground partners to respond to disease outbreaks and disasters where animals are present, and to train community animal health workers in areas of the world with limited access to veterinary care. Harris was recruited by VWB staff when they visited third and fourth year DVM students as a part of their annual recruitment process.
VWB operates the Young Volunteer Program (YVP), recruiting university students and recent graduates that carry out the organization’s mission while also gaining experience and training from skilled professionals. Their objective is to improve food security and livelihoods of farmers in countries south of the equator.
Volunteers like Harris operate in countries all over the world, keeping a One Health perspective in mind; One Health recognizes the interconnectedness of healthy animals, healthy people and healthy environments. Where animal health experts consider animal health, they must also consider human and environmental health and vice versa; altering one has repercussions to the others.
The program offered Harris an all-expenses paid summer placement between her degree programs. She was placed as an Animal Health Specialist working with Ghana Poultry Network (GAPNET) in Ghana, a country situated on the west side of Africa.
“My role involved enhancing the productivity and health of livestock animals like guinea fowl, cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys on small farms in Ghana, which have a direct impact on household income, food security, as well as human and environmental health,” she explains.
The importance animal agriculture plays in Ghanaian culture
Farmed livestock in Ghana make up just eight percent of the country’s gross domestic product, but at the community level, farming provides income to farmers and generates products created from hides and manure.
“Farmers in Ghana, particularly in the Upper East Region, are known for their deep connection to the land, their reliance on traditional farming practices and the recognition of farming as a way of life for the entire community,” Harris explains. “Their lives revolve around the cultivation of crops and the care of animals, and they endure the challenges and uncertainties of agriculture with resilience and determination.”
As with any farming practices, there are challenges to different models. In Ghana, animal agriculture is free-range where animals are not confined by fences. They can wander as far as they need for food and water, which adds risk for disease management, zoonosis, animal welfare and food safety. A key part of Harris’ role would be vaccine education and supporting vaccine delivery to combat some of the challenges of this style of farming.
Harris’ time in Ghana
Harris began her experience in Ghana helping the veterinary service directorates and the community animal health workers (trained and managed by GAPNET) to vaccinate small ruminants of Peste de Petite Ruminants (PPR). The team supported the delivery of 5,000 vaccinations to small communities in the Upper East Region of Ghana over six weeks. She also spent a day assisting with Anthrax vaccinations to livestock after a recent outbreak in May.
The team’s focus then shifted to training seminars aimed at empowering women interested in becoming animal caretakers. The goal of the sessions was to enhance farm productivity and profitability while fostering sustainable livelihoods for women and the communities they live in.
Alongside teaching and vaccinations, Harris was able to complete research in One Health - a personal and professional passion - working alongside Dr. Akunzele, who works for the Ghana Poultry Network (GAPNET) as a partner of the Volunteers Engaged in Gender-Responsive Technical Solutions (VETS) program in Ghana. The team assessed the current state of disease surveillance in the Upper East Region and the impacts that newly-assigned animal health workers were having since being introduced in the country in 2021.
“This enriching experience in Ghana has enabled me to connect with so many individuals and understand the direct impact of vaccination campaigns, empowering women through successful farming practices and the challenges faced by veterinary professionals in delivering medicine,” Harris says.
A memorable moment for her was fostering a local cat called Moose Stew. Harris wanted to get him neutered, a standard practice in Canada. This cross-cultural learning experience revealed what can be achieved despite barriers to veterinary access.
“One of the major obstacles was sourcing appropriate anesthetic drugs for the procedure,” she explains. “The typical protocol I used in Canada was not available due to resource constraints. Another veterinarian loaned us a drug to compliment the one we had. Sterile gloves and scalpel blades were also not readily accessible.”
The challenges didn’t end there. Harris struggled to find pain management and anti-inflammatory medication. After some collaboration and alternative suggestions from other veterinarians, she finally found a pain management drug after visiting several human pharmacies.
“Getting Moose Stew neutered was an incredibly rewarding experience,” she says. “I had the opportunity to learn so much from local veterinarians about improvising. Working in the same place for an extended period can lead to a reliance on typical protocols, but this experience taught me the importance of adaptability and making the best of available resources. It opened my eyes to alternative approaches and creative problem-solving, which enriched my professional skills.”
Returning home with an open mind to new adventures
Harris is now back on the University of Guelph campus completing her MPH degree. She is licensed to practice veterinary medicine in Ontario and looking for part-time opportunities in clinical settings where she can continue using her skills before graduation.
Where will her career path lead? She hopes to apply her love of One Health to a career in government, working with wildlife or global health initiatives.
“Life is full of surprises though,” Harris acknowledges. “I believe that you can never know for sure where it will take you. I'm keeping an open mind and welcoming any new opportunities that come my way. Flexibility and adaptability are key as I continue on my veterinary journey, and I'm excited to embrace whatever comes next with a positive and adventurous spirit.”