imageNotes from another seminar I attended at Focus on Farming… Dr. Paul Khors, Assistant State Veterinarian presented on disease traceability. This is one of those boring topics where it’s easy for everybody to think, oh that doesn’t really apply to me. But, in fact, a major epidemic in animal disease in our state or country would impact just about everybody!

Impact to our Pocketbooks

imageAgriculture makes up 12% of our state economy. 1/3 of the meat products produced in Washington leave the state. We have a  $20M poultry industry. If we were to have a Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) or Avian Flu outbreak, it would shut our borders for exports within 24 hours of detection. The impact to the economy would be quite dramatic.

The indirect costs from an outbreak far outweigh the direct costs. (The following, I think, are national estimates.) The direct costs are incurred from the mass slaughter of infected animals, and the overhead associated with managing this activity are estimated at 24 million animals and a cost of $30-60B. The estimated indirect costs are $140B loss of trade, 17% of the US GDP, and 860,000 jobs. Yikes! This is not to mention the psychological impact of people who are directly affected by the tragedy. During the UK FMD outbreak, there were 80 suicides associated with the event!

Rapid Spread

imageAvian Flu is particularly concerning since humans can get it and spread it, as well as birds. And birds are everywhere! All of the “H” flus start with waterfowl, and then jump species. Migratory birds switch continents via Alaska. Recently they found a ten year old bird with a Japan tag in Whatcom county!

Though FMD is not zoonotic, humans can spread it to animals from their shoes, clothing, etc. if they have been in contact with infected animals. Just one person carrying it to a local farm and infecting one herd of animals could be the catalyst. From there, wildlife spread it to neighboring farms, people visiting those farms get on planes and visit other farms, animals are shipped and commingled, people track stuff home from auctions and shows. FMD is carried by all ungulates-pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and even some llamas. Sheep are a silent carrier with no outward symptoms, so are of special concern. Within days, it can spread across the country and be totally out of control.

Dr. Khors showed a graphical computer model on screen which illustrates how fast something like FMD spreads. It was amazing to watch the vectors travel and multiply as the clock ticks by, indicating hours from initial import of disease. By the time it would be first detected in our country, the genie would already be out of the bottle and the disease all over the place. It is estimated that for each hour the disease goes undetected, economic loss increases by $10M.

Models show that limiting livestock showimages to <4 days curtails the spread of disease. So fairs should try to change-out animals this often, versus having them hang out for longer together.

Bioterrorism is still very much a concern. I thought Dr. Kohrs said they had caught someone at SeaTac airport with a vial of FMD in his pocket- but I didn’t quite catch the details. I thought, gee, I don’t remember hearing that in the news! And indeed, I can’t find reference to it on the web. I suppose border patrol doesn’t advertise every incident they catch, in order to avoid freaking everybody out. But it makes sense, we have to realize border patrol is catching bad guys every day. It’s the guy they miss that’s the problem…

Dealing with an Outbreak

imageIn planning for what we would do in an outbreak- there are several conundrums. Just managing to dispose of that many slaughtered animals is nearly impossible. In Europe, they burned the carcasses in open pyres, but now they think that may have spread the disease more. Burial, or closed incineration, may be better. If the dead animals are transported, this increases risk of spreading infection, so it’s best to move them as little as possible. Composting in place- even right inside a barn- is another option. Bird flu is compost-able (killed by the heat of compost piles). For commercial flocks of birds, they euthanize them by gassing them right in their barns. I didn’t catch the statistic, but Dr. Khors said that if we had to bury everything at Washington’s largest auction house, it would be a trench many miles long! So this is something they are always thinking about, is how we would handle this problem.


imageThough the issue of animal traceability is controversial, this is why the USDA and state Ag offices want it so badly. Once an outbreak occurs, they need fast ways of figuring out where affected animals came from and where they have been. From there, they have to trace through exposed animals and try to find all of the carriers as quickly as possible. The heavily debated National Animal Identification System (NAIS) has been canceled, and now the onus is on states to manage animal traceability.

Washington state handles 90,000 paper documents each year which track animal movements. It’s obvious that this is too much paper- it would take hundreds of man hours to sift through all that, if needed (and in fact, did, when we had the mad cow incident here). So, they are working hard on moving all of this data to electronic systems. An electronic CVI (Certificate of Veterinary Inspection) is being piloted now.

Ear tags are still the primary method of identifying large animals. Microchips haven’t been a satisfactory solution for beef, they migrate too much into edible tissue. USDA can’t live with the possibility of a glass RFID chip turning up in someone’s steak… Winking smile The cost aspect is negligible; though RFID tags are $2, versus 10 cents for a regular ear tag, big producers find RFID saves in labor. Animals can  just be scanned with a wand versus having to hand-note ear tag numbers.

People Who Lie Awake at Night Worrying About This…

So, that is a snippet of a day-in-the-life of a state veterinarian or WSDA office employee. They spend a lot of time thinking about this problem, how to estimate and measure it, how to prevent it; and being prepared to deal with it if it happens. It’s good for all of us to digest, it would seem; though nobody enjoys thinking about it.