Working to improve animal health in Africa one village at a time


Working to improve animal health in Africa one village at a time

Jan 01, 2012

NATIONAL REPORT — At Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Jill Lynn, DVM, was stationed for more than six months, temperatures climbed above 100 degrees every day in the summer. In other countries across the continent of Africa where she traveled, temperatures exceeded 80 degrees daily. Heavy rains in some areas made travel difficult. The dryness in Ethiopia felt like a second skin had been sprayed on to everyone, she says.

But the Africa Veterinary Civil Action Program (VETCAP) veterinary team, consisting of two veterinarians and two veterinary technicians, was on a mission to share knowledge, and diagnose and treat animals.

Lynn's journey from her hometown of Manistee, Mich., to working across Africa this summer was longer than most.

Lynn majored in history at the University of Michigan, but wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her degree after she graduated. She ended up spending seven years in the business world but knew it wasn't for her. Then, she started volunteering at a local animal shelter.

It was there that she began to formulate an unconventional plan. She was going back to school, but not for her master's degree. In 2004, Lynn decided she wanted to be a veterinarian.

Four years later, she graduated from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She worked for Banfield Pet Hospitals for three years after graduating veterinary school, but she still remembered her experiences during veterinary school studying abroad in Thailand. She had always considered joining the military, but her time overseas put yet another plan in motion.

At first, she wasn't sure a military career would work for her and her husband, but as a former serviceman, he understood. Lynn has been in the Army reserves for two years now. This was her first deployment.

"I had a very good job," the now 36-year-old veterinarian says. "But this was a good decision for me."

Her more than six-month deployment to Africa had her working side by side with animal-health workers in areas where there are few or no veterinarians. She worked in a vastly different environment than what she was used to, traveling through Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia. She worked with species that she was unfamiliar with, such as camels. And she worked with peoples from different cultures, where language was often a barrier simply because locals had their own names for various animal diseases.

"We fill a need by partnering with local veterinarians and sharing knowledge," Lynn says. "They have animals and diseases that we don't have, and it is a great opportunity for everyone to learn. We worked very closely with the local governments and each country's ministry. It's truly a partnership. They may identify an area where they would like to gain knowledge, and we would provide them with that, but it's not just the U.S. military coming in to teach."

Each community was so welcoming and so excited to see Americans helping with their livestock that as her time in Africa was coming to a close, Lynn was sad to leave the people she had been working with 7,000 miles from her home. Particularly bittersweet was leaving the community health workers with whom she had worked so closely.

A female soldier and doctor was a bit of a novelty in Africa. On Pemba Island in Tanzania Lynn fielded question after question from curious school-aged girls eager to find out about her. "There were more than a few times where I was the only woman, surrounded by male soldiers and male farmers," she says. The team spent a month on the island traveling to about three different villages each day, working with a total of 62 villages in just 20 days.

In other countries, villagers would travel 10 to 20 km to bring their cattle in for treatment. Once villagers heard the team was coming, they would just begin showing up. Lynn helped set up a lab in Tanzania, worked on identifying local livestock diseases, such as East Coast Fever and various parasitic diseases.

And she knows she made a difference.

"Veterinarians are so fortunate to be in this profession," Lynn says. "There are so many opportunities and so many directions to take our careers. There are so many places in the world treating so many different animals. The Army Reserve is an experience like no other. A colleague of mine who graduated a year after me told me he was considering joining.

"I told him that he would be foolish not to join."