Texas Prepares for Emergency Animal Disaster
News Release Editor's note: The following email was received from Carla Everett, Texas Animal Health Commission.
Texas Animal Health Commission
Box l2966 *Austin, Texas 78711 *(800) 550-8242* FAX (512) 719-0719
Linda Logan, DVM, PhD* Executive Director
For info, contact Carla Everett, information officer, at 1-800-550-8242,
ext. 710, or ceverett@tahc.state.tx.us

For Immediate Release--

With 254 counties and more than 36 million head of livestock and wildlife at risk, Texas animal health officials cannot afford to wait until a foreign animal disease strikes to plan for disaster. For nearly four years, the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC), the state's livestock regulatory agency, and the Texas staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Veterinary Services (USDA-APHIS-VS) have prepared to respond to an animal disease or pest emergency, address bioterrorist events involving livestock, or respond during a natural or man-made calamity, including a flood or hurricane.

Each member of the joint state and federal first-strike force, called the Texas Emergency Response Team (TERT), has advance duty assignments, to lessen confusion when disaster strikes, says Dr. Linda Logan, Texas' state veterinarian and head of the TAHC. Furthermore, nearly all of the state's 21 regulatory veterinarians are foreign animal disease diagnosticians, trained to recognize dangerous animal diseases, and properly collect and ship samples for laboratory diagnosis, she said.

In years past, said Dr. Logan, the USDA had sufficient funding to develop and maintain first-response teams, which were called READEOs, or Regional Emergency Animal Disease Eradication Organizations. Because of funding and staffing cuts, the USDA today operates only two READEOs, and states have to be able to respond immediately, Dr. Logan pointed out.

"The 216 TAHC staff and the Texas USDA alone could not sustain eradication efforts for a long-term or widespread animal disease outbreak, so we also joined forces with Texas' Department of Emergency Management, where we can draw on services, technical expertise, equipment and manpower statewide," said Dr. Logan. "On March 29, 2001, Governor Rick Perry, recognizing the importance of the Texas livestock industry to the state's economy, appointed the TAHC as a full-fledged member of the 32-seat State Emergency Management Council."

Governor Perry then established, by a letter dated April 5th, the Foreign Animal Disease Working Group, chaired by Dr. Logan. The objective is to manage an animal disease emergency in the most efficient manner possible. More than 30 state agencies are members of this group, which is working closely with the Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety. Among the members are: the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL), the Texas Department of Highways, Texas A&M University, and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Dr. Logan said the TAHC also has organized a Stakeholder Advisory Group that includes all the major livestock industry organizations in Texas. This group will provide input and to be a part of the planning process needed to manage an animal health emergency. The Foreign Animal Disease Working Group and Stakeholder Advisory Group are are working to complete the Texas plan to manage animal health emergencies. The infrastructure developed as part of this state plan will be tested in late June in a simulated animal health emergency.

"With the industry's support, we can succeed. Without it, all our best efforts could fail," commented Dr. Logan. She said the 12 governor-appointed members on the TAHC commission also represent facets of the livestock industry, including cattle feeding, exotic livestock and fowl, equine, veterinarians and public members.

For several years, TAHC field staff across the state also have developed valuable contacts with local leaders, including county judges, local disaster agencies, agriculture teachers, county agents and private veterinary practitioners through the TRACE--or Texas Rural Awareness, Compliance and Education effort. With increased threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), field staff revisited community bellwethers to provide disease information and instructions on how to report suspect cases.

Dr. Logan pointed out that livestock producers may avoid reporting cases, for fear of crying "wolf." Diagnosis can also be confused with vesicular stomatitis, VS, a viral disease that, during the past 10 years, has resulted in sporadic outbreaks in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Unlike FMD, however, VS can affect horses.e. In sheep, blisters and erosions also can be caused by bluetongue, or contagious ecthyma, better known as "sore mouth."

"If a producer sees an animal with erosions or blisters around the mouth, in the mouth, excessive slobbering, lameness or foot erosions, we want them to immediately contact their local veterinarian, the Texas USDA-APHIS-VS, or the TAHC," said Dr. Logan. "We have a 24-hour hotline, and one of our foreign animal disease diagnosticians is always available to take calls. We'll dispatch a diagnostician to the premise to collect samples and assess the situation."

To promote livestock health awareness, TAHC staff are encouraged to actively seek speaking engagements for youth associations, producer groups, and Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions' Clubs. The TAHC also distributes numerous news releases, information kits and brochures to keep producers and the public informed not only about regulations, but also disaster preparedness, said Dr. Logan.

Because it's not enough to just plan for disaster, Dr. Logan said five TAHC veterinarians have had month-long stints in Great Britain, as part of the USDA's international assistance to the foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease outbreak. "Seeing field cases of FMD and working on-site in an eradication effort is the most valuable training for our foreign animal disease diagnosticians," she said.

This spring, Dr. Logan also attended a reunion of people who battled FMD in Mexico in the late l940s and early l950s. "These folks have a wealth of practical experience they can share," said Dr. Logan. "These men and women are heroes, having spent several years eradicating the outbreak so near to us."

With a common border stretching 1,237 miles, Texas continues to maintain communication and share livestock health information with Mexico's livestock producers and veterinarians. Dr. Alejandro Perera, formerly a USDA veterinarian in Mexico, is the TAHC binational liaison, and works closely with the other border states: New Mexico, California and Arizona.

In November 2000, Texas participated in the Tripartite Exercise, involving Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The exercise was designed to test plans, policies and procedures that would guide emergency response efforts to a multi-site outbreak of FMD in North America. Hidalgo County, in South Texas, was the site of a simulated foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. This was the first time in the world that field staff were deployed in a a "real-time" exercise of eight days' duration.

Although the scenario began in mid-October, for purposes of the exercise, it was not reported to livestock health officials until early November. In the simulated storyline, a South Texas swine producer on October 15 retrieved food scraps for his animals from a foreign ship docked in Brownsville. Unwittingly, the producer had collected scraps from food that originated in an FMD-affected country. According to the scenario, after cooking the wastefood, the swine owner poured it back into the unwashed transport barrels to carry it to the animals' troughs.

Within a few days, the producer's swine exhibited signs of illness and several litters of piglets had died. The owner finally contacted the TAHC on November 1, but by then, he had sold several pigs from the premise, and more than 1,200 susceptible animals had moved through a nearby livestock market. These animals were exposed to the disease when the virus became air-borne.

"What began as a one-site foreign animal disease investigation in the South Texas county of Hidalgo literally 'blew up,' within two days, as we received reports of sick animals next door in Cameron County and as far away as Dallas County in North Texas," said Dr. Logan. "Furthermore, the storyline included our need to 'catch' a truck that had been contaminated with the virus. The driver had criss-crossed the country from Harlingen to Canada and back, and from Missouri to the Rockies, potentially spreading disease far and wide."

"This exercise gave us a 'homegrown' demonstration about how fast foot-and-mouth disease can get out of hand. Within 24 hours after the disease was passed through the market, exposed animals were sent to more than 30 ranches and feedlots in four states," she said.

In just Hidalgo County, the estimated cost to stamp out the disease would be more than $50 million, she pointed out. "We're using this knowledge to reinforce the need for producers to report animal illnesses or death losses to private practitioners or regulatory agencies," she said.

"Furthermore, after seeing that this exercise mirrored several of the actual outbreaks worldwide in the past 18 months, the Texas legislature has worked with us to ban the waste-food feeding of meat or meat products to swine," said Dr. Logan.

The law is effective September 1, but penalties will not be exacted until December 1. The law will affect 610 TAHC-permitted wastefood feeders in Texas. Currently, Texas USDA animal health technicians make herd health checks on the wastefood feeders at monthly intervals and make temperature checks of the devices used to cook the wastefood to kill parasites, bacteria and viruses.

As of September 1, the permitted wastefood feeders will be allowed to feed only "unrestricted garbage," which includes vegetables and fruit, dairy or baked goods. Additionally, it will be against state law for restaurants, schools or other establishments to provide wastefood meat or meat products for swine feeding. The TAHC still will permit wastefood feeders, and inspections by USDA and TAHC field staff will continue for disease surveillance, noted Dr. Logan.

In late June, Texas will step up its preparedness with an FMD exercise in College Station that will involve the state's emergency management system. Staffing up is one thing; maintaining a major eradication effort for 190 days or longer will tax all entities, reports Dr. Logan.

"The exercise will give us an opportunity to review the organizational structure and develop greater cooperation between agencies. We'll also have an opportunity to discuss issues like biosecurity, decontaminating, humane depopulation issues and other animal-related topics that may be foreign to other members of the state emergency structure. We also want to address the issues that will be associated with how to pay indemnity to producers."

"We'll be tapping the expertise of agencies, such as law enforcement, including county sheriff's departments and the Department of Public Safety troopers, on how to enforce quarantines and movement restriction. We'll also be learning from community services agencies that aid with stress and mental anguish, and other agencies that provide radio and phone communications and ground support--like construction equipment for moving dead animals and digging trenches for burning carcasses."

"Will we be ready if--or when--a disaster occurs? That's a questions that keeps me awake nights," lamented Dr. Logan. "No one is ever fully ready, as there will always be surprises. But, with the state emergency management system, we've got a lot of experienced folks who have weathered tornadoes, fires, hurricanes and other catastrophes. The livestock industry wants to be involved and has demonstrated their concern and willingness to be a part of the planning process. Our staff is intent on preparedness. I only hope this preparation won't be needed."

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Sidebar article:

Five committees have been formed to consider and evaluate selected issues regarding foreign animal disease mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery issues, as well as on-going operations of the Texas Emergency Response Team.

These committees are:

Impact Assessment Committee This committee will handle economic, funding and legal issues.

Security and Containment Committee This group will prepare for all facets of the disease eradication operations, as well as handle on-going operational issues.

Environmental Committee This committee will address the many health and safety concerns related to disease containment and eradication.

Community Impact Committee This group will assess and define the potential short- and long-term impacts of a foreign animal disease emergency on Texans.

Public Information Committee Because communications and providing rumor control is so crucial, this committee will consider all facets of providing and responding to the media, public, and producers.