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Summer 2005 Vol. 5 No. 2

Table of Contents

Photo by Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Animals
and Health

Strengthening Safeguards Against Disease Outbreaks

The need to make animal health one of the nation's top priorities may surprise some people, but it shouldn't, says a new National Research Council report, given the threat posed by new and emerging animal diseases that spread easily in today's global marketplace. Many of these diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted to humans. Mad cow, avian flu, lyme disease, and West Nile virus are just a few of the zoonotic diseases making headlines. Even when people are not infected, an animal disease can have a staggering economic impact on the $2 trillion U.S. food and fiber industry. There is also the danger that terrorists will use an animal pathogen to strike at the food supply.

These challenges led the committee that wrote the report to conclude that a new high-level mechanism, or "strategic focal point," is needed to coordinate the work of dozens of federal and state agencies, university laboratories, and private companies currently responsible for safeguarding animal health in this country. New technologies also need to be implemented more quickly, to better detect, diagnose, and thwart animal-borne diseases. Recent technological advances, such as health-monitoring chips that can be embedded underneath an animal's skin and improved early-warning systems, have not been fully exploited by the current animal health framework, according to the committee. And while it applauded the establishment of a National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which links labs conducting disease testing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the committee said the network lacks the capacity to deal with massive, multiple outbreaks, and at present is only prepared to detect a narrow list of diseases. A more robust linkage of all those involved in animal disease diagnosis is needed.

Although new limits were placed on the importation of exotic animals following an outbreak of monkeypox in 2003 that was linked to an African rodent, the tracking of such animals in the United States is inconsistent and ineffective, the committee found. It said new regulations were needed to govern the possession of exotic, nondomesticated, and wild animals.

The rising challenges in animal health come at time unfortunately when fewer veterinarians are pursuing public health and biomedical research careers; USDA predicts a shortfall of several hundred veterinarians on its staff by 2007. New strategies are needed to recruit veterinarians into fields such as pathology and laboratory animal medicine, the committee said.

The report is the first of a three-part study, with follow-up reports expected on animal disease surveillance and response and recovery plans for an epidemic.   -- Bill Kearney

Animal Health at the Crossroads: Preventing, Detecting, and Diagnosing Animal Diseases. Committee on Assessing the Nation's Framework for Addressing Animal Diseases, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2005, approx. 237 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09259-0; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $46.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Lonnie J. King, dean, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing. The study was funded by the National Academies.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences