Editor's Note: First in a two-part series

Thank God it wasn’t us. That’s probably what our initial response was in 2001 when, over the course of about nine months, almost four million cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, deer and other animals lost their lives due to the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in the U.K.

But what do we do if FMD or another disease comes here? Was probably the second, more sobering, question we asked ourselves.

It appears the FMD outbreak was amplified across several countries before enough awareness was established. Peder Cuneo, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, Extension veterinarian, University of Arizona, Tucson, says this was interesting because the U.K. also had experienced an FMD outbreak in the late 1960s, but was still unprepared for the 2001 event. “Their after-action assessment said that the epidemic took them by surprise and found them singularly unprepared to deal with it and its consequences,” says Cuneo. “Here was a developed nation that experienced this problem 40 years previous, and yet in 2001 found themselves unready and unprepared to deal with the effects of this particular outbreak.”

The U.K. failed to diagnose FMD early in the outbreak. Added to that, layers of government slowed response down. “The government said that preoccupation with forms, requisitions and documentation should take a long second place to effective and rapid actions,” explains Cuneo. “They found that what was really needed was effective, local control where people could make decisions on a local level, but the bureaucracy interfered with the ability of local individuals who understood the situation to quickly and effectively respond.”

Producer recognition failed

The U.K. outbreak has been extensively reviewed, but have the lessons really made an impact on the U.S. livestock industry? The first FMD failure took place because livestock producers were not aware and did not recognize the disease.

Cuneo says investigators found that 90% of almost 600 pigs on the index farm had healing FMD lesions which are serious in swine. “It’s the classic picture of pigs that are infected walking on their knuckles because their hooves hurt so bad,” Cuneo says. “It’s hard to believe a producer could look at 600 pigs infected with FMD, particularly with Strain O, and not recognize a serious animal health problem. Yet there was no request for veterinary intervention or an investigation. The first line of defense, which was the producer, failed in this situation.”

Serious breakdowns in the U.K.’s system included inadequate national biosecurity, contaminated meat that made its way into the feeding system, inadequate on-farm biosecurity and disease recognition. There also were breakdowns in the veterinary medical-delivery system and the diagnostic system. “All of this resulted in the catastrophic U.K. outbreak in terms of animal loss, human loss, monetary loss and changes in the political system,” Cuneo says.

Threats to the U.S.

After 9-11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated the most likely biological agents that could be used as weapons of mass destruction to attack the U.S. population. Of these, four are animal diseases and are found endemically in the Southwest (anthrax, plague, botulism, tularemia), says Cuneo. 

In the United States, animals move around the country for distribution, sale and processing. “Many large animal-feeding operations have centralized feed production and distribution facilities,” explains Cuneo. “These allow for rapid dissemination of either contaminants or potentially-introduced toxins.”

Because our animal population has no immunity to these foreign animal diseases (FADs), if we did have an FAD introduced in the U.S., there could be a tremendous amount of viral shedding. Cuneo says these diseases are prevalent in other parts of the western hemisphere as well as world-wide. “Our border to the south is a portal that not only leads to Mexico, but all of Central and South America as well as Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. The fact that we have porous borders and people crossing those borders presents a tremendous amount of risk to the animal industries in the U.S.” (see bioterrorism sidebar)

The U.S. agriculture infrastructure basically is open to the entire world. “We have a problem with producers in the sense that there is a tremendous amount of reluctance to report any kind of problem, particularly a problem that may get them involved with regulatory veterinary medicine,” says Cuneo. He refers to this as the “three S’s” of on-farm treatment – shoot, shovel and shut-up. “There’s a tremendous amount of distrust and concern on the part of the producers in dealing with some of these problems.”

The new trend of agro- or eco-tourism on many farms and ranches also leaves us vulnerable to international travelers. “A ranch is likely to have a visitor who arrives from Germany or South America one day and is out riding on a ranch on the next day,” says Cuneo.

Border changes increase threat

Gary Thrasher, DVM, Hereford Veterinary Service, Hereford, Ariz., is predominately beef practitioner who spends most of his time in the border counties of Arizona and New Mexico. He also consults for ranchers and veterinarians in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. His large-animal facility is within eye-sight of the Mexican border near the Naco, Ariz.-Sonora port of entry. Thrasher recalls that in the early 1970s, screwworms were a constant battle and Arizona was just starting to get a handle on scabies, tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis. “Many old-timers were still worried about FMD,” Thrasher says. “They had participated in the apthosa and fever tick campaigns and quarantines south of the border in the 1950s.”

At that time, the border fence was intact and USDA quarantine enforcement officers rode the fence patching breaks and returning international cattle strays. Few illegal immigrants and smugglers were a problem, but brucellosis, tuberculosis and screwworm were rampant in Mexico’s border states.

Times have changed. On the positive side, Arizona has been TB and brucellosis-free for a long time. Thrasher notes that few ranchers can remember the turmoil, expense and heartbreaks the eradication programs caused. Sonora is nearly TB, scabies and fever-tick free and may be granted brucellosis “class A” status soon. The screwworm zone has been chased into South America.

But there have been negative changes, too. The USDA fence riders were pulled off the border in the 1980s. In the late 1990s the Border Patrol took action to control ever-increasing illegal immigration and smuggling through urban border crossings such as San Diego and El Paso, and redirected it into less-populated rural areas creating the “Arizona-New Mexico Corridor”.

Miles of the old wire livestock fence was trampled by hundreds of thousands of migrants on foot and smugglers’ vehicles. It was repeatedly cut, stomped down and driven over so many times it is no longer repairable, in spite of border ranchers’ constant attempts, explains Thrasher.

“Frequently I’m called out by ranchers experiencing substantial ‘die-offs’, and seldom do they consider the possibility of exotic or foreign animal diseases,” Thrasher says. “They just want to know what caused it, how to treat it, prevent it or ‘manage around’ it.” He notes that toxic plants, management mistakes and non-exotic, endemic or cyclical and often preventable disease are usually at fault.

It’s not uncommon for ranchers in Thrasher’s high-desert range area to report one to three dozen deaths in a short period of time. Because of the low stocking rate of 10-20 cows per section, it’s difficult for Thrasher to find a dead animal that is fresh enough for a meaningful necropsy. “Because of the distance I travel, I only visit many of my clients’ ranches a few times or less per year, and when they have a wreck, it could have been going on for weeks before the rancher got around to all of his pastures. I have very few colleagues in the region. If I miss something serious, it could spread unchecked for quite a while.” 

Next issue: How Arizona is addressing the threat.

Top Biologic Agents (CDC)

  • Anthrax, B. anthracis           
  • Plague, Y. pestis
  • Smallpox, Variola major     
  • Botulism, C. botulinum (toxin)
  • Tularemia, F. tularensis     
  • Hemorrhagic Fever
  • Filovirus: Ebola, Marbug     
  • Arenavirus: Lassa, Junin

Foreign animal disease training

Are veterinary students learning enough about foreign animal disease (FAD)?  Peder Cuneo, DVM, Dipl. ABVP says in a survey of 290 California veterinarians on their ability to recognize and deal with FADs, only one third indicated that veterinary school adequately prepared them to deal with or look at foreign animal disease, and over half said their preparedness for FAD was poor or very poor.

In 1992 the USDA changed its approach to licensing accredited veterinarians. “Since 1992, veterinarians have not had to demonstrate by examination or review of course work any knowledge of foreign animal disease,” says Cuneo. A study in JAVMA in 2003 said: “it is unlikely that many USDA-accredited veterinarians had the educational background to prevent or recognize a foreign animal disease.” USDA-APHIS is responsible to coordinate state, tribal and local authorities to conduct disease and eradication activities.

Cuneo says in the 2001 U.K. FMD outbreak there was an inadequate veterinary force. The number of field veterinarians in the U.S. has declined in 1994 by 20%. “If we look at the outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease that took place in the Southwest,” says Cuneo, “USDA’s Ron DeHaven said the response to the outbreak taxed our resources to the maximum. This was a single outbreak of one foreign animal disease in southern California which spread into Texas, Nevada and Arizona, and it taxed their resources to the maximum.”

There is a concern that if veterinary curriculum goes with one program for companion animal veterinarians and another program for food animal or large animal veterinarians (tracking), that companion-animal veterinarians may not be adequately trained to recognize an FAD.

“These veterinarians may be as important as food animal veterinarians in finding and recognizing FADs,” says Cuneo. “If we look at the number of exotic animals coming into the United States from all over the world as pets and some of the diseases they have brought into this country such as monkeypox, certainly we can see that exotic animals that would be going to companion animal veterinarians represent a substantial risk.”

Cuneo believes there should be a uniform class on FADs that is mandatory for all veterinary students, and there should be some mandatory continuing education for all veterinarians because of the risk from exotic pets.

This type of training is being taken seriously in Europe. A recent report by the Associated Press in late February 2007 said the European Commission will be setting up a veterinary expert team that could be deployed at short notice to respond to animal disease outbreaks such as bird flu in Europe or elsewhere. Experts will be drawn from the fields of laboratory testing, veterinary, virology, wildlife, risk management and other areas to be ready to move within 24 to 36 hours to affected areas, officials said.

Recent and past outbreaks of bird flu, swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease in the 27-nation European Union “Highlighted the importance of having well-prepared, well-trained personnel available to provide their expertise in dealing with the problem,” said the E.U. health commissioner in the report.

Be vigilant against bioterrorism

A number of factors result in a greater likelihood of an agroterrorism attack today than in the past. Livestock are not routinely vaccinated against a large number of agents that are both lethal and highly contagious to animals. Many animal pathogens can be isolated from the environment or obtained from laboratories without substantial difficulty. Only a small quantity of the agent would be needed since many are airborne and highly transmissible between animals. This is intensified in conditions involving high concentrations of animals, such as feedlots and large dairies.

Animals and animal products are dispersed to many locations over a short period of time. This enhances the potential for spread of a contagious agent.

Early indications of an attack

The intentional release of agricultural pathogens to destroy or damage livestock or crops can also inflict economic damage to instill fear and lower consumer confidence. An intentional release could be virtually indistinguishable from a natural outbreak.

    Veterinarians and producers are encouraged to note and report these types of activities:

  • Unusual increase in the number of sick or dying animals
  • Unscheduled or unusual spraying, particularly outdoors
  • *Abandoned spray devices that lack a distinct odor
  • Reports of large crop or livestock losses and deaths unrelated to climatic conditions.

The bottom line is simply to be alert and watchful. Gather information about anything that seems suspicious. If you don’t have an explanation for it, report it immediately to county agents, government authorities or law enforcement officials. Seeing, hearing and reporting are critical to gathering the intelligence that would hopefully prevent an attack, such as an outbreak of an intentionally-introduced foreign animal disease.

This information is provided by David Cudmore, special agent and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) coordinator, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Kansas City, Mo. Cudmore is charged with investigating terrorist-related activities involving all forms of WMD, including possible attacks on agriculture.