Wreathed in barbecue smoke, Vetjaera Haakuria gestures at the men butchering meat and cooking it over hot coals behind his back. “What have you learned about the risks of eating this?” he asks his young audience, spotless in their white lab coats. “It might contain drug residues, right? And what about diseases?”
It’s nearly noon in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, and the market is preparing grilled meat – known locally as kapana – for the lunchtime rush. Everyone comes here, from construction workers to members of parliament. Namibians love to eat meat, and he is no exception: his tribe, the Herero, traditionally eat nothing else.
But regulation is patchy and the meat being sold at this market could contain anything from antibiotics to parasites, Haakuria says. Diseases that pass from livestock to humans are rife in the country’s rural north.
Animals that die from unknown causes are eaten, no questions asked. Last year more than 50 people were hospitalised in north-western Namibia after contracting anthrax, a deadly disease that had probably entered a goat flock from infected wildlife.
In those areas, people live cheek by jowl with their livestock, Haakuria says. “You go straight from the cattle kraal into the house, where babies crawl around on the floor.”
While most small-scale farmers are able to access basic veterinary drugs such as antibiotics and dewormers over the counter at agri-stores or human pharmacies, few are told how to administer them safely.
That is why Haakuria has brought his second-year pharmacy students from the University of Namibia to this market: to teach them about the interface between human and animal health.
He is the country’s only specialist veterinary pharmacist. But not for long – or so he hopes.
The University of Namibia teaches all its pharmacy students a bit of veterinary pharmacy. But starting next year, it will offer a postgraduate specialist course on the subject. It is only the second such course in the world. The first opened its doors at the UK’s Harper Adams University a decade ago.
“Part of the training will be around animal health and husbandry,” says Alison Pyatt, who runs Harper Adams’s postgraduate course, and who is helping to set up its Namibian counterpart. Graduates from these courses do not replace vets, she explains. But they are able to go out into farming communities and advise people on how to keep their animals, and themselves, healthy.
In Namibia, that means teaching people about naturally occurring diseases such as brucellosis, a bacterial infection passed from animals through milk, meat or even close contact, which can cause miscarriages in humans.
Haakuria and Pyatt both believe pharmacists are ideally placed to supplement veterinary health services in rural areas. The medicines used to treat humans and animals are often the same, he says, and pharmacists are experts on how to give drugs safely and effectively. This is something vets don’t always know how to do. And anyway, in northern Namibia vets are in short supply. But most towns have a pharmacist.
Veterinary pharmacists would provide drugs, advice and information to rural communities, Haakuria explains. But they could also help curb drug resistance. Overuse of pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics in agriculture is one of the main culprits driving the development of superbugs around the world. So if stores that dispense them in rural parts of the country are required to have specially trained staff, that would be a big step forward, he says.
It doesn’t have to stop with Namibia, he adds. “If it works here it needs only a little bit of tweaking to work in, say, Botswana.”
Speaking to the students, it seems at least some of them are keen to follow in Haakuria’s footsteps. Nearly all of them grew up around animals and have seen the issues Haakuria describes with their own eyes.
One of them, Venomuinjo Kasaona from Opuwo, a town near the border with Angola, remembers eating meat as a child from an animal that he realises now had probably died of foot and mouth disease.
“I realise I can help people back home,” he says.