A foreign animal disease outbreak in Texas could cost government entities more than $50 million per county, according to estimates tallied in early November, when livestock health officials simulated an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in South Texas.

The simulation was to test emergency preparedness. Worse yet, the figures compiled by the Hidalgo County emergency management coordinator don't include indemnity payments to pay producers for livestock destroyed to prevent the spread of disease, or lost revenue due to inevitable state and federal quarantines that would restrict livestock and livestock product movement for months, or possibly, years. Marketing opportunities would be restored only when an affected region could prove it is disease-free.

"Foot-and-mouth disease, without a doubt, is the most economically important livestock disease, and recent outbreaks around the world make
this highly contagious virus a tangible threat to our domestic livestock. This disease also strikes a variety of species, so it was an excellent choice for a test exercise. If we could develop our ability to fight foot-and-mouth disease, we could stop any disease," said Dr. Linda Logan, Texas' state veterinarian and head of the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), the state's livestock health regulatory agency.

Dr. Logan said the $50 million cost estimate was just the initial economic impact on Texas agriculture. Costs were calculated by Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Charlie Montgomery, who worked with personnel dispatched to the site of the first simulated case in the practice exercise.

"Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks can devastate an animal agricultural-based economy," said Dr. Logan. "In addition to the enormous direct costs of fighting the disease, there are also the lost opportunities for trade. A region's credibility regarding disease prevention and control also could be critically damaged."

"This exercise gave us a 'homegrown' demonstration about how fast foot-and-mouth disease can get out of hand," pointed out Dr. Max Coats, TAHC's head of animal health programs. "Immediate action is required. We hope to use this experience to reinforce the need for producers to report animal illnesses or death losses to private practitioners or regulatory agencies."

A planning team of livestock health regulatory officials from the U.S.,
Canada and Mexico developed the exercise with the goal of testing
international communications, and decision-making regarding where and how extremely limited supplies of FMD vaccine would be distributed among the three countries. Within the state, Dr. Coats said the Texas Emergency Response Team (TERT) practiced working within the state's emergency management system. The system is a network of county and state agencies capable of providing much-needed manpower, equipment and technical support. TERT is a cooperative effort of the TAHC and Texas' U.S. Department of Agriculture's Veterinary Services staff and is prepared to address disease outbreaks or natural disasters affecting animals.

The disastrous scenario began in mid-October, but for purposes of the exercise, was not reported to livestock health officials until the first of November. On October 15, a South Texas swine producer retrieved food scraps for his animals from a foreign ship docked in Brownsville. He fed the uncooked wastefood to his pigs, unaware that bits of the meat that originated from a country where FMD exists, contained the foot-and-mouth disease virus. Although it poses no human health danger, the virus causes severe blistering in the mouth and around the muzzle, teats and feet of cloven - or split-hooved animals, including goats, sheep, cattle, pigs and deer. A very high percentage of animals exposed to the FMD virus will become ill, and many never recover.

Within a few days, the producer's swine exhibited signs of illness and several litters of piglets had died. The owner finally contacted the TAHC on November 1, but by then, he had sold several pigs from the premise, and more than 1,200 susceptible animals had moved through a nearby livestock market. These animals were exposed to the disease when the virus became airborne.

"What began as a one-site foreign animal disease investigation in Hidalgo County literally 'blew up,' within two days, as we received reports of sick animals next door in Cameron County and as far away as Dallas County in North Texas," said Dr. Dee Ellis, a TAHC area director who headed the TERT team in South Texas. "Furthermore, the storyline included our need to 'catch' a truck that had been contaminated with the virus. The driver had criss-crossed the country from Harlingen to Canada and back, and from Missouri to the Rockies, potentially spreading disease far and wide."

"To stop the spread of disease, immediate action is required, to stop animal and livestock vehicle movement," said Dr. Ellis. "We needed immediate producer cooperation to stop livestock hauling, close sale barns, rodeos and other events in affected areas."

"We also discovered how quickly TAHC commissioners must impose formal movement restrictions to avoid a massive outbreak," commented Dr. Logan. "The commissioners must also decide when to request a disaster declaration, so that affected and exposed animals can be depopulated and owners can be compensated with government funds. Thanks to the state's emergency management system, we can draw on staff and equipment needed for a wide variety of tasks, including depopulating sick animals, maintaining movement controls and tracing movement of livestock that may have been exposed to the disease."

"By the third day of the exercise, we were chasing disease and had not been able to contain infection," commented Dr. Dee Ellis. "Hidalgo,
Cameron and Willacy Counties were placed under a simulated quarantined to slow the spread of infection. In the exercise, the deer hunting season was suspended." Dr. Conger explained that deer can be affected by the disease, and moving infected carcasses can spread infection.

By the final day of the exercise, TAHC commissioners stopped livestock
movement statewide. Livestock movement was shut down within and out of the state, and Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado embargoed Texas livestock. A goat herd near the infected swine operation became ill and was set for depopulation, said Dr. Ellis. Mexican-imported cattle that were held temporarily at the livestock market in Hidalgo County developed lameness and blisters. Tragically, the Mexican imports had already been transported to a Starr County feedlot and had exposed 20,000 head of cattle, and would have to be destroyed.

"For more than two years, the TERT team had prepared for a disease outbreak or natural disaster involving animals," said Dr. Logan.
"Thankfully this was an exercise, and we will continue to fine-tune our plan, sharpen skills and strengthen partnerships with producers, practitioners and other agencies, in order to be ready when a real disease is introduced or a natural disaster hits."

Dr. Logan stressed that global travel of humans and livestock has greatly increased the risk of a foreign animal disease outbreak or pest
introduction. She urged producers to report potential signs of disease to private practitioners, the TAHC area offices or agency headquarters at 1-800-550-8242, or Texas' USDA's Veterinary Services at 1-512-916-5555.

Danger signs in a herd or flock include

  • blistering around an animal's mouth, teats, muzzle or hooves
  • unusual ticks or maggots
  • staggering, falling or central nervous system disorders
  • severe sudden illness or death loss affecting a high percentage of animals.

    Texas Animal Health Commission