Nothing in the beef industry flames fear more intensely than the spectre of foreign animal disease and the inevitable shutdown of export markets. The emergence of BSE and collapse of Canada’s beef markets in 2003 shaped a decade-long economic slump that exposed an industry unprepared.
Emergencies in the cattle business cover the spectrum of missed chances, bad choices or just bad luck. Today’s narrative should be about how industry better understands the anatomy of an emergency, about building co-ordinated response plans within and between segments, how it reassembles the pieces for recovery, and how it sustains industry infrastructure through vacuums created by an emergency (processing and trucking industries are examples). By their very nature, disease events tend to be unexpected and the variety of eventualities, limitless. Though planning and preparation for emergencies take place in artificial settings, we’re better equipped because we learn the right things.
In preparation for emergencies, the livestock industry must remain mindful of the successes and failures associated with human disease outbreaks and the crossover that often occurs between people and animals. Ongoing influenza outbreaks, the horror of the West African Ebola epidemic, and the international emergence of Zika virus, dengue fever and Chikungunya are real-life illustrations of disease emergencies and the potential gaps in both veterinary and medical infrastructure that permit them.
For the North American cattle industry, the greatest threat regionally and nationally is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The United States has been FMD free since 1929, Canada since 1952, yet the highly contagious disease remains endemic throughout much of the world. Recent studies by the USDA, Colorado State University, University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Linköping University in Sweden showed that rapid implementation of movement controls at a regional level play an important role in stopping or slowing the spread of rapidly transmitted animal diseases like FMD.
Without early detection and intervention, the economic impact of FMD reaches into the billions of dollars very quickly. FMD in Canada could potentially cost $6 billion for a small, quickly contained outbreak, while losses attributable to a larger, more extensive outbreak could easily reach $45 billion. U.S. estimates place potential FMD losses at $188 billion. Even when dealing with unpredictable emergencies, a little preparation goes a long way.
Through 2014 and 2015, Canada’s cattle-feeding sector took an in-depth look at sector-wide emergencies in an attempt to formulate emergency preparedness plans that would help guide feedlot owners through potential disasters, especially those associated with disease outbreaks.
In April 2015, the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association reviewed and tested the plan with the goal to eventually hand it off to the National Cattle Feeders’ Association for use as a blueprint in other provinces.
The project generated draft guidelines and a workbook that producers, feedlot operators and allied industry organizations could take home, work through and systematically prepare for disease-related, sector-wide emergencies. The Lethbridge workshop reinforced that sector-wide emergencies can and do occur. Owners and operators were reminded that the cattle they control are their responsibility and they alone are accountable for their well-being. The essential constituent of managing an emergency is recovery by having tools and information in hand to minimize losses, to demonstrate due diligence and enable a faster return to normal.
The workbook consists of the following sections:
- An overview describing how a major disease outbreak looks from a feedlot operator’s perspective along with the expectations placed on feedlot operators.
- Guidelines covering the recognition of “disease triggers” and appropriate response to unusual animal health events. Mention is made on topics like mass vaccination protocols, zoning, the challenges of mass depopulation and disposal, personal safety, and quarantine. The guidelines briefly describe the Incident Command Structure, how it works and the absolute necessity of maintaining ICS for successful organizational control and communication.
- Tools for getting prepared, training staff and organizing a register of specific information for each feedlot needed during emergencies, including feedlot objectives, farm schematics, inventory lists, contact directories, and visitor controls.
Unfortunately, mass destruction and disposal, and real-time surveillance able to detect unusual disease events early in the course of an outbreak are two major components of emergency planning that remain glaring breaches, and have remained so for many years.
Early detection and rapid response to animal disease outbreaks is crucial to ensuring global security. Every hour a disease like FMD goes undetected adds an additional $3 million to control costs. A gap in surveillance capability also plagues response to human epidemics. The world wasn’t prepared for Zika to fly across continents in the span of a few months. The response to Ebola in West Africa, was built on sheer will with very little permanent scaffolding established for long-term changes to the health-care system.
The issue around a deficiency in surveillance goes back to funding priorities. Much of the funding devoted to infectious disease today is in reaction to outbreaks. With that, veterinary and human health communities are not generally prepared to respond quickly. Although we’re not stuck with what we’ve got, serious discussion between federal funding agencies and private organizations is necessary to prioritize resource spending.
Sustained disease vigilance is crucial. By aiming at the end of the epidemic, we miss the larger point. We cannot live as a world that moves from responding to one epidemic after another. Rather than thinking of beginnings and ends, we need continuous surveillance for threatening infectious diseases that are both known and yet to be discovered. We need to move from a culture of outbreak response to one that focuses on prevention. Small clusters of infectious disease cases are inevitable, but outbreaks and epidemics are preventable. (Nahid Bhadelia, Infectious Disease physician at Boston Medical Center and the director of Infection Control at National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory.)