Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series on foreign animal disease response.

An extensive series of catastrophic livestock losses, particularly in some rural areas of Arizona, coupled with the U.K.’s outbreak of food-and-mouth disease (FMD) and events that took place on September 11th, woke up the livestock and animal health community in the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona’s wide-open spaces and rugged terrain made responding to agricultural events or threats difficult. Risk factors included extensively-managed range livestock, the issue of time, distance and expense in obtaining help, veterinarians who were not readily available or knowledgeable, and producers who often didn’t know
who to call for a livestock health event. Based on who was contacted during an event, the response varied tremendously.

“When we did have a response, there was very poor communication between the responders, the producers and the diagnosticians,” notes Peder Cuneo, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, Extension veterinarian, University of Arizona, Tucson. “Often samples and information got lost in the system. There was no central agency that brought all of this information together.”

In 2003, a National Resources Council study, Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism, recommended the development of a comprehensive U.S. plan that should define legal authority in the state, local and private level and require or demand some kind of interagency cooperation. “They really felt it was important there was a coordinated effort between agriculture, wildlife, public health and all the other services to address the issue of a possible outbreak of agricultural bioterrorism,” Cuneo says. Arizona took that recommendation to heart.

A series of meetings between the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences of the University of Arizona including the Animal Sciences department, the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and Cooperative Extension, were held to develop a different kind of response to these emerging issues.

ALIRT program

What was developed was a program called the Arizona Livestock Incidence Response Team (ALIRT). ALIRT is a partnership between the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the state veterinarian’s office and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“No single agency can do this whole job,” says Cuneo. “We need trained and equipped veterinarians. We need a strong relationship with local Extension and producers. The state had the ability to get the money, our diagnostic lab could do the training and make response kits, and Animal Science could help with producer and veterinary outreach and education.”

The mechanism of the ALIRT system is straightforward. Action begins with the producer. A producer who discovers a serious livestock health program such as excessive death loss, unusual appearance, behavior, etc., may contact the local veterinarian or livestock officer, and it is brought to the attention of the ALIRT committee which is comprised of four people who get together on a conference call.

“We have all of the information we can gather over the phone from the producer,” says Cuneo. “The committee decides what the ALIRT response is going to be depending on the nature and severity of the problem. If we have a serious problem, we can dispatch our first responders.”

The first responders are 15 private practitioners (three more are planned to be added) throughout the state of Arizona who are enrolled in the ALIRT program. If they respond to an ALIRT, first they need to secure the site and provide for the personal safety of themselves and the producer, collect important history using an ALIRT form, then collect samples. “We have a worksheet that goes through, step-by-step, what samples need to be collected, in what order and how they need to be processed,” says Cuneo. “We have shipping equipment available so those samples can be quickly transported to the diagnostic lab.”

The Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Lab is responsible for handling those samples, sending them to the appropriate satellite labs and overseeing the diagnostics from that point on. The ALIRT process is also responsible for interaction with other agencies such as law enforcement or regulatory, and the program is responsible for cost coverage. There is no cost to the producer. The veterinarian’s time, travel and diagnostic costs are all paid for by the ALIRT system. The program does not provide treatment, but it will cover further diagnostics and can assist with disposal if that’s a problem.

If an ALIRT case turns out to be a foreign animal disease (FAD), it passes out of the ALIRT control program and goes to USDA-APHIS and the state veterinarian’s office. “Our ALIRT veterinarians can be available to assist with euthanasia, disposal, and other things that regulatory agencies may require,” states Cuneo. “We also need to consider the fact at this may be a criminal event such as bioterrorism. In that case, we need to contact state and federal law enforcement. The important thing is that our ALIRT veterinarians have been trained so the samples they collect can be used in court as evidence, and they have been instructed about the possibility of being expert witnesses.”

Veterinarians receive a full day of training at the Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. They receive six hours of continuing education and are given ALIRT kits and supplemental information such as euthanasia guides, disposal handbooks, and more. The field kit has personal protective equipment, necropsy equipment, sampling equipment, evidence tape, Zip-lock bags, a digital camera and a GPS unit, all placed inside an ALIRT bag that is grab-n-go. The bags were customized for the veterinarian based on their clothing needs for personal protective equipment.

Cuneo says there have been three major responses. The time from contact to ALIRT to having a first responder (veterinarian) on-site was less than four hours. Those cases involved infectious disease and plant toxicity.

Veterinarians are key players

It became apparent that local mixed and food-animal practitioners, as first responders, would be crucial to make this program work. Many veterinarians were interested in becoming involved, but lacked the equipment and training.

Jim Lytle, DVM, Wickenburg, Ariz., became involved with ALIRT at its inception. Prior to the ALIRT program there were situations that Lytle says he and the diagnostic lab handled and “gave away” their services due to the economic situation and the complexity of the case. “There have been other situations that have not been pursued due to economic considerations. If they occurred today, we will be able to follow through and hopefully find the answers to help our clients and the industry as a whole.”

Lytle, who has a large-animal mobile practice based 70 miles northwest of Phoenix, says the proximity to the border and the flow of illegal immigrants through the area, along with the international mobility of our population today, has us at a great risk for an FAD. “We as practitioners need all the help we can get in early investigation and diagnosis of the situation, and the ALIRT program is a very positive step toward making this happen, not only with the support to the practitioner, but in getting the producer involved early on.”

In the beginning, Gary Thrasher, DVM, Hereford Veterinary Service, Hereford, Ariz., was a bit cautious about the ALIRT program’s motives and thought it might compete with local practitioners. “What I got was a lot of help,” Thrasher says. “I was better-informed and trained, better-equipped and became better-coordinated with the veterinary diagnostic laboratory, Extension personnel, state veterinarian and the state’s USDA-APHIS epidemiologist and foreign animal disease specialists.”

His fears about ALIRT competing with practitioners was unfounded. “The program depends on private practitioners, provides support and supplies and even helps pay some of the clients’ diagnostic expenses that otherwise might not have been done,” Thrasher explains. “It also creates clients who might otherwise not have gone to the expense to do diagnostic tests.”

Lytle agrees. “The training, equipment and supplies are all good. We have all been refreshed in our prior knowledge and are all on the ‘same page’ when we respond to a situation. It also reinforces that we are all in this together and working for the same goals and not in a competitive practice situation.”

“Veterinarians are our first responders, the ‘boots on the ground’,” Cuneo adds. “We depend on them to collect the right samples, to handle and process them correctly and get them to the lab ASAP.” Veterinarians are also responsible for site biosecurity and maintaining contact with the ALIRT committee.

“Our goal is to make sure veterinarians correctly collect, transport and get to the lab those diagnostic samples needed to make a diagnosis,” says Cuneo. “We want to provide for rapid and complete diagnostics and access all the resources we have. We want to ensure effective communication between producers, responders, diagnosticians and the government so everyone knows what is going on. We want to be transparent, but at the same time ensure we protect the confidentiality of the producer who initiates the first response.”

Cooperative Extension offices have modified field-response and shipping kits. “They have been set up with high-speed internet access so that digital images from the field can be rapidly processed and sent to the state veterinarian and our office,” Cuneo explains. “Our lab is part of the national Animal Health Laboratory Network which is eventually going to be in all 50 states.”

Thrasher says many of the practitioners involved with ALIRT work near areas of high animal concentration (feedlots and dairies) but may be unfamiliar with remote ranching operations. Some are mixed or equine practitioners who may have limited travel to remote areas. “There is definitely a shortage of practitioners willing to focus on the range cattle industry in this area, and even fewer willing top drop everything and run to a potentially serious incident.”

Thrasher has responded to two substantial die-offs in the past year that were handled through the ALIRT program. Both proved not to be anything infectious, contagious or suspicious. “I was promptly paid by ALIRT for my time and efforts, and I think the ranchers were pleased with the ALIRT response and diagnosis,” he says.

ALIRT also offers producer education through Cooperative Extension. “We talk to producers about the program, why it is their program and how important it is for them to be involved,” says Cuneo. Regional meetings allow producers to meet their local ALIRT practitioners.

Communication with law enforcement

Because of border issues, these veterinarians are often in communication with law enforcement officials. Thrasher has easy access to the county sheriff, supervisors, animal control and health department, and state livestock officers (brand inspectors). His practice area close to the border swarms with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Border Patrol and U.S. Customs agents, Department of Drug Enforcement agents, the National Guard, Minutemen, border watchers and other more ‘vigilante’-type groups.

“They might all be helpful in enforcing a quarantine if a serious disease outbreak or agroterrorism event occurs,” suggests Thrasher, “but they’re not much help if an outbreak goes undiagnosed for an extended period.”

Many in rural communities have relationships with the law enforcement in their areas, but Lytle believes this relationship could be strengthened. “We need to better understand where each other is coming from so that we can work better together when the situation arises and we are in a crisis.”

The ALIRT program has contacts with local sheriff’s offices, the Department of Public Safety and the FBI. “Overall, these agencies want to have our help in diagnostics,” says Cuneo. “Our responders have been trained to handle responses as crime events so samples collected can be used in court.”

Get involved

This program and others of a similar nature in other states are a must with the changes in our animal and people-movement patterns, the amount of hands-on treatment by veterinarians and the economics of agribusiness today, states Lytle. “With the potential of an FAD and/or bioterrorism today, coupled with the scarcity of food animal practitioners, we need all the rapid and early response as possible,” says Lytle. “We have all seen the computerized modules showing what will happen if FMD occurs, along with seeing some of the misfortunes of our global neighbors in those situations.”

Cuneo adds that this type of program can be beneficial, especially in rural western states. “ALIRT is really intended for areas that are underserved by food animal veterinarians,” he says.

“As veterinarians we need to talk to our clients about if an event happens, how can we make sure their enterprise survives this?” suggests Cuneo. “What can we do in terms of biosecurity and protecting ourselves, so we are not decimated by an outbreak in another part of the country? Producers are the first line of defense. Producers and their veterinarians must be aware of FADs, how to get a diagnosis, and how to have a biosecurity plan in place.”

For more information on the ALIRT program, follow this link.

The human threat for FMD

Gary Thrasher, DVM, doesn’t believe stray Mexican cattle moving through his practice area near the U.S.-Mexican border are the biggest threat to foreign animal disease (FAD) introduction into the United States. “Foot-and-mouth disease is our biggest threat, but not from the hundreds of Mexican cattle that stray back and forth through the battered border fence every day, and can stray as far north unimpeded as far as 50 miles from the border through government-owned wildlife sanctuaries and riparian set-asides,” Thrasher explains. “The biggest threat is the significant number of ‘OTMs’, or ‘other than Mexican’, as the Border Patrol describes them, crossing the border illegally on foot through Arizona and New Mexico.”

Thrasher says as many as 10,000 Brazilians supposedly crossed the border in 2006, many originating from rural areas where FMD is currently a problem. “Many of them fly into Mexico City then into smaller airports, take a shuttle to a border town, taxi to a remote border crossing point, crawl through the rickety fence and they’re here, just a day or two out of Brazil’s FMD zone.”

“The flow of illegal immigrants through the state and the potential for inadvertently introducing an FAD is tremendous,” adds Jim Lytle, DVM.” We are also at a tremendous risk of an FAD due to the ease of global movement and the ignorance of the population as a whole on the dangers of bringing in a problem. It is not at all unusual to have tourists who stop and look at range cattle to be less than 24 hours out of foreign countries that have contagious problems of great concern to us.”

Aside from potentially carrying in FADs, many of these people also leave the trails from the border littered with their belongings. “Border ranches are littered with truckloads of trash and discards left behind by migrants,” says Thrasher. Within just a few miles of Thrasher’s home, backpacks have been found with writing or literature in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, Korean and other Middle Eastern languages. “The migrants end up at farms, ranches and processing plants all over the U.S. in just a few days. They only pass through the border states.”

During the 2001 FMD outbreak in Great Britain, anyone returning to the U.S. from the U.K. was questioned, their bags searched and shoes and clothes disinfected if they had visited rural FMD areas. “Who questions and disinfects the illegal migrants and their abandoned baggage?” asks Thrasher. “If one of the thousands of Brazilians crossing the border, for example, could unintentionally bring FMD with them, couldn’t others from anywhere else intentionally bring it in as well?”