Growing demands raise doubts about APHIS' emergency response capability

Report finds government's animal health infrastructure in decline as risks grow
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Despite the twin threats of agroterrorism and new and emerging diseases, a report by the federal agency responsible for protecting America's agriculture details a sharp decline in the number of government veterinarians and other animal health professionals responding to animal emergencies.

The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service prepared the report, which states that the systems safeguarding U.S. agriculture are coming under increasing pressure from the growing volume of international trade and travel, the risk of terrorism, and wildlife disease management.

In light of the shortage of critical human resources, the report warns that the growing demands on APHIS threaten to hinder the agency's ability to respond to animal health emergencies, putting agriculture and humans at risk.

"The current APHIS cadre of veterinarians and animal health professionals is clearly insufficient to handle the increased workload associated with trade obligations, emergencies, and already apparent future demands," the report states.

Written in August 2003 for a broad audience of animal agriculture industries, government agencies, and the public, the report is meant to underscore the risks to U.S. agriculture, according to Dr. Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator of APHIS Veterinary Services.

Veterinary Services is the federal government's primary animal health emergency response organization. Its duties include investigating suspected cases of foreign animal disease, as well as coordinating national animal health emergency preparedness and management.

The report focuses on Veterinary Services, yet the findings are relevant to state agriculture departments and the animal agriculture industry with which Veterinary Services partners in emergency preparedness and during disease outbreaks.

Two events—the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain in 2001 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11—galvanized the nation's sense of its vulnerability to economically devastating animal diseases and terrorism.

If additional evidence is needed, look no further than the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state and the high-pathogen avian influenza strain in Asia that has caused the deaths of more than 20 people.

The agency report "dramatically" quantifies a growing suspicion within APHIS. "It was written largely in response to a subjective feeling that we had a declining animal health infrastructure, while at the same time, the relative risks to U.S. agriculture and animal health were increasing," Dr. DeHaven explained.

The report notes steady upward trends in the numbers of travelers entering and leaving the country and in the numbers of imports and exports. With the growth in the volume of people and products crossing U.S. borders come increased chances of accidental or intentional introduction of an exotic pathogen.

For instance, there was a 127 percent increase in international travelers to the United States from 1980-2000. During the past decade, trade protocols have led to increasingly open borders. APHIS veterinarians have responsibilities pertaining to import and export areas, such as certification of animals' disease-free status.

During the past 20 years, Veterinary Services resources and the animal health infrastructures in most states have declined by more than 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively, Dr. DeHaven observed. The reductions are a result of successful programs to control brucellosis, tuberculosis, and other diseases affecting animal populations.

"As the need to eradicate these diseases has been reduced, so have the resources allocated to it," Dr. DeHaven said, and added, "We're a victim of our own success."

The report states that of the 531 veterinarians APHIS employs, 99 are in Animal Care, and Plant Protection and Quarantine, leaving 432 in Veterinary Services. Of those, 322 work in the field, with the balance working in laboratories, regional offices, and Veterinary Services headquarters.

Since 1994, the report continues, despite APHIS' expanded role in animal health, the number of field veterinarians has dropped from 404 to 322—a 20 percent decrease. At the time of a large avian influenza outbreak in Pennsylvania in 1984, Veterinary Services had a staff of nearly 3,000 employees. Today, that number is approximately 1,400.

The recent outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in Southern California—resulting in "the largest animal health emergency response mounted by the USDA in the past 30 years," according to Dr. DeHaven—revealed gaps in the animal health infrastructure.

"While we responded, and did so very effectively and very successfully, it taxed our resources to the maximum," he said. "We could not have responded to another outbreak of even a moderate magnitude, had it happened at the same time that we were responding to the outbreak in the Southwest.

"It'd be safe to say that, if we had had an outbreak of FMD in the U.S. at the same time we were dealing with END in the Southwest, it would have very quickly overwhelmed our resources, and we would not have been able to respond effectively."

The agency report lists potential solutions to help handle emergencies. APHIS recommends creating a team of full-time agency veterinarians whose primary responsibility would be dealing with animal disease outbreaks. Other steps include better use of contract veterinarians, enhanced use of veterinarians from other federal and state agencies, expanded use of accredited veterinarians, and making APHIS a more competitive employer.

The recommendations are a combination of acquiring additional veterinarians and leveraging Veterinary Services' limited resources by building better interagency coordination so that animal health emergencies are included in existing emergency response plans.

"Historically, we thought about emergency response in the context of hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes," Dr. DeHaven said. "But now, there's recognition that animal health emergencies should be part of the response plans."

The Bush administration made the defense of U.S. animal agriculture a national priority in January with Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9. In it, the president ordered the federal government to take a number of actions to protect America's food and agriculture from disease and terrorism, including accounting for agriculture and food emergencies in the National Response Plan (see JAVMA, March 15, 2004).

"It's a tremendous effort, very appropriate and timely," Dr. DeHaven said about the directive, adding that "it's an acknowledgment of what we've been saying for a long time: U.S. animal agriculture is vulnerable."

Moreover, Bush's fiscal year 2005 budget asks Congress to appropriate $20 million for APHIS' emergency management programs—nearly a hundred percent increase. Dr. DeHaven said, "The president's 2005 budget is acknowledgment and evidence of the fact that there's recognition of some of these needs."