Animal health experts: American agriculture must prepare for epidemics


(Firm and slag file photo)

From COVID-19 to foot-and-mouth disease to African swine fever, infectious diseases are not new, for humans or for livestock. For centuries, they have been a constant problem for farmers and agriculture as a whole. This does not mean that we have understood them all.

Even as Pennsylvania State University was planning a conference on emerging animal infectious diseases in the spring of 2020, a global pandemic erupted. Events, including the conference, have been canceled or rescheduled.

As with human infectious diseases, there are steps that can be taken to prevent and control epidemics in animals – for livestock, biosecurity plans, livestock traceability and treatment, vaccination or depopulation of sick animals can help. . But the US livestock industry is not as prepared as it could be.

“Biosecurity is an area that I strongly believe is lacking in the beef industry,” said Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania State Veterinarian, in a Dec. 1 session of the Infectious Disease Conference. Emerging Animal Reprogrammed from Pennsylvania State University. “We need to prioritize biosecurity. “

At the conference, which ran from November 29 to December 1, speakers discussed current disease threats to the livestock industry, the potential impacts of epidemics, and ways in which farmers, researchers , state and federal agencies, and the agricultural industry as a whole can prepare for or prevent epidemics.


African swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease and bird flu are three major diseases of concern these days, and three of the conference speakers focused on current threats. African swine fever has not yet been found in the United States, but has spread to countries like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. For now, there is no vaccine or treatment.

Some diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease, have been around for some time, but may pose a higher risk today than they were before due to the proliferation of industries and global economies.

“Diseases have been around for a long time, but what has changed is the world these pathogens share with us,” said Peter Fernandez, of PJF AgroStrategies Consulting, a former senior executive in the Animal and Plant Health Service of the US Department. of Agriculture.

Diseases that are carried and spread by insects could also pose a greater risk to some areas than they previously were, as warming temperatures allow some to move further north than before.


The economic impact of something like African swine fever or a highly pathogenic avian flu epidemic would be severe. At the local level, diseases that cause livestock losses can cause food prices to rise and disrupt the food supply chain, said Dustin Pendall, Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University. .

On the other hand, some epidemics could lead to massive drops in food prices, if an industry loses access to export markets. For example, if the United States were to experience an African swine fever epidemic, Pendall said, the industry would like to see prices drop by about 50%, assuming that the American industry would likely lose the access to export markets for a period of time. .

If this disruption of access was prolonged for too long, it could lead to lower pig production and lower demand for feed. And if pork prices go down, causing more consumers to choose pork for meat, the prices of other types of meat could also go down.

The estimated cost for the United States to recover from an African swine fever outbreak would be $ 13 billion, said Robin Holland, chief of the diagnostic services section of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory of the United States. USDA, and the cost of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would be $ 100 billion.

“We need to be better prepared for these diseases,” Pendall said. “[African swine fever] knocking on our door. [Highly pathogenic avian influenza] spreads… so it may not be if, but when.

Things like risk assessments and planning exercises that simulate what an animal disease response might look like are the two ways to prepare, he said.


There is also a lot that can be done at the farm level to prepare for or prevent serious outbreaks. Biosecurity plans and livestock traceability, using things like RFID tags, can help. But it can be difficult to convince people of these concepts, especially because they cost time and money.

“Agriculture is a blend of science and civics,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture. While research and science to understanding infectious animal diseases is important, so too is education and awareness for farmers and others involved.

It’s important to make sure people have a common understanding of what biosafety and related terms mean, in definition and in practice, said Suresh Kuchipudi, of the Penn State Animal Diagnostics Lab. And in summaries of the breakout sessions at the conference, speakers suggested that the economic rationale for epidemic preparedness could help rally more farmers.

The speakers also said that biosecurity has a lot to be put entirely on farmers. Educating other people who might be on the farms at some point – like feed mills, maintenance companies, and the like – could help support farmers trying to keep their farms biosecure.

It is also important, they said, to stress that these practices do not only concern exotic animal diseases, such as African swine fever. They can also help manage or prevent diseases already present in the United States or in their condition.

“One example we try to set in Pennsylvania is to be proactive rather than reactive. I think the two main takeaways are to invest in our preparedness… and then to be intentional and proactive in how we want to understand these threats, but also to approach mitigation, ”Kuchipudi said.


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Boyd S. Abbott