I recently attended the “Biosecurity: Our Regional & National Response” research symposium in Kansas City along with about 225 others to listen to speakers talk about past zoonotic events, such as West Nile virus, current/future threats and plans for surveillance and response.

Tracey McNamara, DVM, Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine, gave quite a disturbing recount of the West Nile virus outbreak a decade ago that illustrated the lack of coordination between veterinary medicine (including zoos and wildlife), the government and public health. “The United States does not have an integrated strategy of biosurveillance,” she said. Quoting the Institute of Medicine from 2009, she said there are no examples of an integrated system between human and animal health.

It was McNamara’s persistence 10 years ago that played an integral role in discovering and identifying West Nile virus in the United States when she was on staff at the Bronx Zoo. Her diligence in looking for a cause led her to deal with public and private entities, and even the military, to investigate this emerging disease. Often her attempts to work with these different groups were unsuccessful as there were no strategies for cross-agency cooperation between animal health and public health at that time.

West Nile Virus has animal and human implications as do many zoonotic diseases. Barbara Drolet, with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit, gave an update on Rift Valley Fever and exotic bluetongue. Rift Valley Fever is endemic in Africa and moved from Africa to Yemen in 2000 where 100 people died, 800 became ill, and cattle, sheep and goats were affected.

“Rift Valley Fever is absolutely a threat to U.S. livestock and wildlife,” Drolet said. “It could appear like West Nile virus. It has consequences to animals and humans. It spreads easily by aerosol so there is potential for human infection. We’ve been slow to prepare for this virus.”

 

She notes that various mosquitoes in United States are likely suitable hosts, and other vectors that are not native can spread it as well.

Exotic bluetongue, while not a human threat, can have devastating economic consequences to livestock. Production losses and trade restrictions can cause an estimated loss of $120 million a year in the United States and worldwide $3 billion a year, according to Drolet.

“Exotic bluetongue is absolutely a threat to the United States,” Drolet warned. “We can’t regulate viruses. This is a transboundary disease – it needs to be tackled on an international level.”

This is where it’s critical that producers and veterinarians stay ever-vigilant for signs of foreign, exotic and even emerging diseases in livestock and wildlife -- dying crows were the sentinels in the West Nile virus outbreak. It’s also important that our livestock and veterinary industries support and encourage the funding of biosurveillance, investigations, staffing of veterinarians in conservation and wildlife departments as well as agricultural departments, and get on board with support for new scientific laboratories such as the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility slated for Manhattan, Kan., that will replace the aging Plum Island facilities and have world-class disease surveillance and testing capabilities.

This is an example of how the One Health concept can work to protect human and animal health in our shrinking world.