A review of the nation's ability to protect livestock and poultry against foreign animal diseases describes the state of disease control as adequate and, at times, "heroic."
But accelerated agricultural trade and personal travel, combined with emerging animal diseases, threaten to overwhelm the system in its current form, necessitating increased federal funding in several areas, including staffing, surveillance, and border security.
The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service commissioned the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in November 2000 to review the capabilities of U.S. and state governments, foreign governments, and the livestock industry to protect domestic livestock and human populations from animal diseases.
A review panel and four committees comprising state animal health officials, university and private animal health specialists, and livestock producer groups conducted the audit during an eight-month period. The findings were released by the NASDA in October 2001, and will substantially shape the nation's animal health policy. Two AVMA entities—the Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee and the Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine—will review the report when they meet in February and March, respectively.
Animal agriculture in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry that can be damaged, and even destroyed, by animal diseases. There are also public health risks: people who come in contact with some of the infectious agents could become ill and even die. The panel concludes that it is of the utmost importance to prevent the spread of animal-borne diseases by maintaining a robust national disease control system.
In its report, the panel praised the Veterinary Services program within APHIS for successfully carrying out its mission to protect the health and marketability of U.S. animal agriculture. Performance has been "adequate in handling most assigned roles, and even heroic in some historical efforts to eradicate diseases that have infected U.S. livestock," stated the report.
But the report goes on to state that increased trade and global economic interaction have created a situation when the APHIS-VS could be a "victim of its own success."
The review panel's task was unique because it examined all of the animal health programs within APHIS. Previous reviews looked only at specific segments. "This is the first time we've had a complete review of our activities, and I think, most significantly, is it was a review by an independent organization that has quite a bit of credibility," said Dr. Gary Brickler of APHIS-VS, who chaired the APHIS steering committee that assisted the review panel.
Dr. Brickler has been temporarily reassigned from his duties as veterinarian-in-charge of Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington to oversee the steering and implementation phases of the review. The report is "excellent," he said, and highlights areas in APHIS that could be strengthened and restructured.
"I was happy that it did not come up with any major, gaping holes in our safeguarding system, but it sure has given us a lot to work with," Dr. Brickler said.
The report explains that a number of factors—increased trade, new technologies, and expanding agriculture industries—have engendered so many new opportunities for the industry and related operations that APHIS-VS is stretched thin. As such, four major needs were highlighted.
Infrastructure inadequacies are so endemic that the system cannot appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis.
Improved communications—including the creation of an Emergency Operations Center—is critical for acquiring and sharing animal health information, and attention to advanced technologies is necessary.
A National Surveillance System and National Response Plan must be created to monitor and respond to animal health emergencies.
There is a need for expanded applied research and for diagnostic laboratories, both focused on animal health matters.
In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the report emphasized the need for a national strategy in which federal, state, and local resources can respond together to any animal health emergency, including the introduction of exotic animal diseases and bioterrorist attacks.
The APHIS committee has developed an action plan based on the panel recommendations. After further review, a final implementation plan will be drafted. "Then the real work begins," Dr. Brickler said.
Some recommendations are similar to initiatives currently under way at APHIS; others will be implemented within the year, whereas ones that fundamentally alter the way APHIS and VS operate could take years.
The NASDA review is available at www.aphis.usda.gov.