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Plan for the Worst

20:28PM Jul 29, 2008

USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) and industry groups conducted a mock, table-top Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) training exercise for livestock media in May.

"FMD is one of the most difficult diseases to control because it has a short incubation period and can be spread over vast distances quickly," says Jose Diez, APHIS associate deputy administrator for Emergency Management and Diagnostics. "The virus is excreted in large amounts, but only small amounts of virus are needed to get the disease."

The cost of an outbreak could easily mount to billions of dollars, felt by producers, marketers, processors and consumers, Diez says.

The table-top exercise, conducted at APHIS' Emergency Operations Center in Riverdale, Md., showed how a FMD outbreak could quickly overwhelm a 500-person town in the Midwest.

While some might scoff at the notion of such an incident happening in the U.S., the 2001 FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom, cost an estimated $17.4 billion. And even the small outbreak that occured there in 2007 cost the British $20 million per week.

"Sometimes APHIS gets criticized for over-reacting," Diez says. But the potential for catastrophic losses to livestock and the economy dictates that any practices or livestock movement that would spread the disease in an outbreak will be prohibited, he explains.

Mock disaster. The APHIS table-top exercise occurred in the mythical town of Hopeless, Iowa. FMD was detected in a 2,300-head swine operation surrounded by beef and dairy operations.

Once detected, APHIS and Iowa's state veterinarian would move quickly to contain the area. Theoretically, they would like to cordon off a 6.2-mile radius around the farm, known as the infected zone.

But because Iowa, like much of the country, is laid out in square-mile grids, containing that 6.2-mile radius would require establishing road blocks on 35 intersections. Most rural Iowa counties only have five or six deputies available at any one time. So simply containing the farm would mean reducing the size of the original infected zone, calling in aid from other counties or using county workers to block access roads.

Once that occurs, veterinarians would be dispatched to neighboring farms to look for signs of FMD. If found, the infected zone would be enlarged to encompass those farms.

Without premise identification through the National Animal Identification System, it could take veterinarians several days to locate all farms within the infection zone.

Real concern. In the table-top exercise, Hopeless also had an auction market two miles from the infection site. The auction market had conducted one of its sales two days prior to the detection of FMD, and livestock sold at the sale were shipped out to feeders in several dozen states. In essence, those shipments potentially spread the outbreak nationwide.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, teams were assembled to euthanize the hogs on the farm. Burial pits first had to be sited and dug, while humane but rapid methods of euthanization were found. It was decided that large dump trucks covered with tarps could be used to gas the animals with carbon dioxide.

Even that was problematic because finding enough dump trucks in the rural county to do the job was an issue since some of the trucks were already involved in digging the burial pits.

A neighboring cow-calf operation was also found to be infected, requiring depopulation. That simply added to the logistical problems of putting down some 60 cows and burying them.

On top of this, the national news media had arrived on the scene after the Secretary of Agriculture announced that FMD had been detected. Feeding the media's insatiable appetite for new information while maintaining a containment zone, testing other herds, and euthanizing infected herds, added to the chaos.

The exercise demonstrated that a FMD outbreak will stress local resources, can spread quickly and can cripple the U.S. livestock industry. Thank goodness the exercise was all fun and games. A real outbreak will be anything but. 

Emergency Operations

The APHIS Emergency Operations Center (AEOC) is an 8,800 sq. ft. high-tech system on the 5th floor of APHIS headquarters in Riverdale, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C.

The Center serves as the Secretary of Agriculture's primary point of coordination during agricultural health emergencies. It essentially allows APHIS personnel to communicate with its field and mobile communication centers across the country and link into the nation's security system should an animal health crisis stem from a terrorist attack.

It features four 65" screens, 21 high-power computerized work stations and global-positioning time-zone clock displays. AEOC is designed to support 40 APHIS personnel 24/7 during a national animal health crisis.

AEOC has its own independent phone system, a high-security room for classified communications, and reserve power that could keep the center operating for 48 hours on its own fuel supply.