Here's how the farm bill can help prevent the next animal disease outbreak

Here's how the farm bill can help prevent the next animal disease outbreak

When Minnesota veterinarian Dr. Jill Nezworski made a visit to sick turkeys on March 26, 2015, she was almost certain of the problem: the birds were infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, which spreads rapidly and can quickly eliminate entire flocks.

However, in order to treat the birds, she had to have an official diagnosis from the federally-funded National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN). Even though samples were rushed to the closest NAHLN lab, some cases waited more than 24 hours for an official diagnosis — and in the meantime, the disease was able to spread.

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Different versions of this incident played out around the country in 2015, as more veterinarians detected the disease and NAHLN laboratories became overwhelmed by the large volume of avian influenza samples. As a result, responses were delayed and the outbreak continued to grow in scope, devastating poultry farmers and ultimately costing taxpayers almost $1 billion in cleanup.

Congress can help us do better during the next outbreak of avian influenza — and help us prepare for other animal diseases as well. For instance, an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) in livestock would cost the U.S. economy around $200 billion over 10 years.

To prevent such disasters, Congress has an opportunity to take concrete steps in the 2018 Farm Bill to improve our animal disease response and preparedness capabilities.

Veterinarians support a three-pronged approach to animal health in the 2018 Farm Bill: permanent establishment and full funding of a national Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program; permanent full funding of the existing NAHLN; and permanent authorization and full funding of a national livestock vaccine bank with immediate attention to FMD.

Together, these programs will facilitate a proactive response to animal diseases, so we can increasingly catch diseases early and treat them before they become widespread outbreaks.

For instance, an Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program would increase coordination between on-the-ground veterinarians, state officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to marshal adequate resources at the first sign of an outbreak. It would also facilitate strategies such as advance training exercises, prevention plans and rapid response protocols.

At the same time, adequate funding for the NAHLN would provide the network’s labs with necessary resources to quickly identify diseases during emerging outbreaks, so that veterinarians can initiate a swift and appropriate response. These laboratories need sufficient and sustained funding to serve our advanced animal agriculture and food security systems.

A U.S.-specific livestock vaccine bank would initially provide the United States with a robust supply of FMD vaccine that could be used to prevent the spread of an outbreak. Our current supply, shared with Mexico and Canada, is simply inadequate.

Avian influenza and FMD are far from the only threats to animal health. Any number of devastating animal diseases could easily upend access to our safe and reliable food supply. Dedicated veterinarians, in concert with ranchers and farmers, work full-time to keep animals healthy — but we need federal resources to prevent future catastrophes and improve our ability to fight outbreaks.

We’re grateful to the many House and Senate lawmakers who recognize the importance of animal disease prevention to our food supply and economy. We encourage both chambers of Congress to establish and fund this program and help us protect animal agriculture as they work together to finalize a Farm Bill. With these safeguards, we can ensure we’re better prepared for the next animal disease outbreak.

Dr. John de Jong is the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.