March 15, 2004
Mar/Apr 2004 -- When Exotic Newcastle Disease broke out in Southern California late in 2002, officials used the Forest Service wildfire-fighting model to quell the virulent bird disease.
Now, such rapid response models are being employed to deal with mad cow disease, discovered for the first time inside U.S. borders on December 23, 2003.
"The incident command strategy for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is the same as used for the exotic Newcastle disease," said John Clifford, associate deputy administrator, National Animal Health and Policy Program of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
As a result of the rapid response, said Clifford, the offspring of the BSE cow found on a Washington dairy have been traced and destroyed. Of the other 81 animals that entered the United States from the same Canadian premises, 27 had been traced as of late January. And the investigation to track down the rest continues with more than 100 people involved in the effort.
Richard Breitmeyer, state veterinarian for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the man who led the fight against exotic Newcastle disease, or END, credits the U.S. Forest Service as creating the model for responding to emergencies.
"They managed response to the Twin Towers," he said, "They know logistics."
Breitmeyer said the outbreaks of END and BSE made last year one of the worst ever for animal disease risk. Such risks may well continue, he said, given increased world travel and trade, new and emerging diseases, the threat of bio-terrorism and reduced state and federal resources.
"Consider foot-and-mouth disease," he said. "The disease is rampant in many other parts of the world, making it a risk to the United States."
Breitmeyer has received accolades for his work with last year's END outbreak. Bill Lyons, secretary for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, upon Breitmeyer's receiving the California poultry industry's highest award in September last year, pointed to his superb leadership skills.
"His response to and oversight of the emergency was characterized by quick thinking, creative problem-solving and total dedication," said Lyons. "It is because of these abilities that his expertise is sought after nationally and internationally."
END, a viral disease that is contagious and usually fatal, started in a Southern California backyard Oct. 1, 2002, the first U.S. outbreak in 31 years.
"This past year, it was the cow that stole Christmas," said Breitmeyer. "That year it was the chicken that stole Christmas. Most of the spread was caused by fighting chickens being moved around."
After calling an emergency animal health meeting, California ag officials linked with other state agencies as well as state emergency offices in Arizona and Nevada, states soon infected with the fast-moving disease. They set up an incident command post in a gymnasium and brought all the agencies together as if tackling a wildfire or an earthquake.
"In two months, we had a plan in place for the region and the country," said Breitmeyer.
The result: California was declared END free on Sept. 16, 2003. In the meantime, 300,000 premises had been surveyed, 18,000 backyards quarantined and 26,000 premises depopulated - all without a single lawsuit being filed, said Breitmeyer. In addition, 20 commercial poultry premises were inspected and three million birds destroyed.
Citing efforts to corral the disease as the "largest national eradication effort in a decade," Breitmeyer said the program included the coordination of 11 federal and 18 California agencies, involved 5,000 field workers and 2,300 state employees from California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and cost a total of $170 million.
For any industry faced with tackling a foreign disease, he advised, government, industry and academia all have key roles to play.
As for the BSE strategy, Clifford said that an international review team now in place will soon release its comments on the incident, which will help in plotting a long-term surveillance program.
"People call it the cow that stole Christmas," said Clifford, "but I think she stole a lot more than Christmas. A lot of trade issues have been affected."
Trade impacts, he added, can be found on the APHIS Web site. In the meantime, he said, the steps taken so far in the United States have resulted in safe products, and the risk of BSE in this country is extremely low.
"Public health is achieved through SRM (Specific Risk Material) removal, not through the testing of individual animals, even though our trading partners do it and are pushing us to do it," said Clifford. "Animal health protection is achieved through the feed ban.
"We will detect BSE if it's in our population," he added. "We succeeded in finding this one."