Advocacy in action
May I borrow a cup of data?

I have been involved in planning for and responding to animal-health disasters for much of my career as a veterinarian. My initial foray into large-scale disease response occurred in the early 1990s. I was tasked with responding to a classical swine fever outbreak in a large production facility in Mexico. There were initial struggles just to get an accurate diagnosis, followed by significant challenges associated with working with local and federal government agencies to develop and implement an eradication program.

My second major experience with disaster response occurred in the late 1990s. A series of damaging hurricanes and tropical storms hit eastern North Carolina. I remember well standing in a flooded field watching representatives of no fewer than six government agencies arguing over how to dispose of large numbers of livestock carcasses. Following these events, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture worked closely with the livestock industries and other government agencies to develop a strategy to address future large-scale animal disasters.

In 2001, I spent a month in Wales working with the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease. The challenges evident in this response involved the ability to locate farms and manage the logistics associated with mass depopulations and disposal of carcasses incumbent when adopting a stamping-out response. This was my first experience with an animal disaster on a national scale, and it emphasized the need for rapid, efficient, real-time access to accurate data from producers, diagnostic laboratories, and government officials. MAFF, now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was actually well-prepared for locating farms. They had very effective mapping capabilities and a pre-existing premises and animal identification system. Much of the data transfer, however, was still conducted via phone and hardcopy.

There has been significant progress in planning and preparing for an animal-health emergency. The ability to efficiently transfer data between pertinent stakeholders, however, remains a significant weakness limiting our ability to rapidly respond and maximize business continuity. The recent outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) highlighted this gap. The size, design, and scope of modern animal agriculture in the United States necessitates the adoption of technology that enables real-time access to data housed in remote locations and in disparate databases. Sharing data by spreadsheet will significantly limit our ability to respond and ensure business opportunities remain for livestock producers.

The inability to access data as rapidly as we would like has previously been blamed on the fact that the technology was not available or not widely in use. Not so long ago, producers kept their records in a shoe box or filed documents with the government in hard copy. Lack of technology is no longer an acceptable excuse, however. Today, producers often keep and access records electronically.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in two foreign animal disease response exercises. Both highlighted the need for timely and accurate data access and the technology available to achieve those goals. The impact on response associated with the ability to utilize technology to access and interpret data was also on display in the recent HPAI outbreak. The more efficiently and rapidly state and federal animal health officials can obtain needed data and respond to industry needs, the more effective the disaster response.

One of the exercises I participated in showcased the AgConnect technology developed at the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD) at Texas A&M University. This served as an example of the technological capabilities available to facilitate data access and analysis. AgConnect facilitates permissioned access to disparate databases (including producer, laboratory, transportation, government, etc) to allow for the visualization of the information necessary for disease control and permitted animal movements. Ownership and control of the data itself remains with the original owner and minimal resources are necessary on the part of the owner to facilitate the data connection. Utilization of this technology allows state and federal animal-health officials to work with real-time data on demand to make decisions regarding control zone placement, movement permitting for live animals and products, and laboratory updates on surveillance testing.

The IIAD exercise was particularly enlightening by demonstrating use of the technology to analyze routine production data in addition to emergency response. Dr Maryn Ptaschinski provided an overview of how veterinarians at JBS Pork routinely utilize the tool to better understand disease challenges. The ability to share production data such as diagnostic reports, animal movements, and mortalities in the format in which it is routinely collected greatly enhances the response efficiency during an animal-health emergency.

Although we have made progress, gaps still remain in our response capabilities and efficiency. We now have the technology available to close some of these gaps, particularly associated with data access and visualization. The challenge we face now is adoption of this technology and incorporating its use in our response planning. There is no reason producers, laboratories, and animal-health officials should not adopt this technology and remove the policy barriers preventing its widespread use. Experience has shown that when data can be readily accessed with minimal handling and manipulation, disease response efficiency and accuracy is markedly improved.

Harry Snelson, DVM
Director of Communications