The Role the State Veterinarian Plays in Animal Disease
By Dr. Tom Vaughan ’55 | Dean Emeritus
Dr. Tony Frazier, State Veterinarian for Alabama, is our guest columnist for this issue. Appointed to his office in the Department of Agriculture and Industries in 2001, he succeeded Dr. J. Lee Alley1who served in that capacity from 1979 to 2001.
Dr. Frazier writes a monthly column for the Alabama Farmers Cooperative Farming News to report current activities of his agency statewide. Writing in a highly readable, conversational style, his articles humanize what is often misconstrued as a stiff, regulatory function of governmental authority over the independent activities of veterinary medicine and animal agriculture. Each month, he addresses a different disease complex which he carefully researches and solicits outside review to ensure accuracy. The veterinary profession and the agricultural industry are fortunate to have such watchdogs of the public health.
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The Role the State Veterinarian Plays in Animal Disease
By Dr. Tony Frazier, State Veterinarian for Alabama (Originally appeared in theJuly 2012 issue of Farming News)
While I cannot confirm this, I would guess that none of you lie awake at night wondering just exactly how certain diseases fall under the jurisdiction of the State Veterinarian and others do not. It would not surprise me, though, if a handful of you haven’t at least given it a passing thought. I say that because I wonder about it myself sometimes. For me personally, I am firmly in the corner against all animal disease. However, there are certain diseases that come onto my state veterinarian radar state screen in various degrees. There are diseases that we regulate. There are diseases for which we conduct surveillance and assist industry in controlling. And there are diseases that are reportable to us that may not require any further action. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this, you will have an understanding of the role we play in keeping animal agriculture sustainable by what we do involving animal disease.
My job is to look at the big picture. My interest and what I am, by law, required to do is to maintain the health of the state herd and f lock. That is not referring to a herd or f lock that is owned by the State of Alabama. It refers to the collective f locks and herds of poultry, livestock, and equine owned by the people of Alabama. Sometimes it may be construed as being able to “run over” an individual for the greater good of the industry. From my perspective, it sometimes means inconveniencing the individual, not only for the good of the rest of the livestock or poultry farmers, but also for that individual whose animals may be quarantined, tested, or in extreme circumstances, depopulated.
We live in a world that figuratively gets smaller every day. Exports of animal agriculture products to the rest of the world are extremely important. And people often say that the response by the rest of the world to certain diseases here in the United States has more to do with political science than health science. Suppose we have a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Alabama. So far as foreign countries are concerned, the whole state is infected. That is why we play a role in disease that would affect exports, as well as movement of animals to other states.
Brucellosis is the disease that, I suppose, is the icon for diseases we regulate. The eradication of the disease in Alabama is possibly the greatest success that has resulted from the cooperation of the State of Alabama, the USDA, and the state cattle and swine industries. So how did brucellosis become a regulated disease? Interestingly, the Brucellosis Eradication Program began back in 1934 as a voluntary program so a person could market his cattle as “Bangs Free.” Brucellosis was chosen because of the devastating results that it could cause in a herd through abortions and infertility. Then throw in the fact that the disease could and did often infect humans; it became a no-brainer for the government to begin measures to eradicate the disease. However, after 20 years, only about 10 percent of the cattle producers were involved in the voluntary program. In the mid-’50s, USDA began to put some regulations in place that, with cooperation from the states, eventually led to the eradication of the disease except near the Yellowstone Park area where elk and bison perpetuate the disease.Bovine tuberculosis was much the same. When the disease got into herds, cattle herds, it was pretty much there to stay unless the herd was quarantined to stop the spread to other herds, and a test and depopulate protocol was implemented. And bovine tuberculosis could infect humans who consumed unpasteurized dairy products from infected cows. That led to the
Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication Program. The last case of bovine TB in Alabama was back in 1981. I can think of several states and of federal employees, some of them passed on by now, that wore out at least three Carhartt jackets fighting brucellosis and TB.
In many instances, we regulate diseases that have two things in common: they have severe economic effects on animal agriculture, and they are zoonotic (diseases transferrable to humans). Highly pathogenic avian influenza is another example. Most of you remember a few years ago when most every night on the news “experts” were predicting the end of humanity as we know it because avian influenza was spreading in chickens on the other side of the world and occasionally causing some human death. Therefore, efforts that include self-imposed surveillance standards by the poultry industry and government oversight have greatly reduced the chances of the previously mentioned scenario coming true.
We also play a role in diseases that industry has recognized as being devastating to their producers. A couple of those diseases are Mycoplasma in poultry and trichomoniasis in cattle. We constantly test poultry f locks for Mycoplasma. This is generally a severe respiratory disease that can affect other organ systems and basically sends production plummeting. When a flock of commercial chickens tests positive, they will be depopulated as quickly as possible to minimize the chance of spreading the disease. In the case of trichomoniasis, industry asked us to work with them to regulate this reproductive disease. Part of the reason for that was that most states out West had been regulating the disease for quite some time. If Alabama producers shipped a breeding bull out West, there were certain regulatory hoops they had to jump through. The decision to regulate the disease had moved our direction, with Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee enacting regulations that affected our commercial cattle breeders in particular. That regulation is to reduce the risk of infected animals being shipped into Alabama.
There is a list of reportable diseases that includes diseases that we closely regulate and those that we look at on a case-by-case basis. Those diseases include all of those mentioned already in this article as well as other diseases that we need to keep track of but are not likely to necessitate regulatory actions if those diseases are discovered on your farm. Some of those are West Nile virus, Eastern encephalitis virus, anaplasmosis, blue tongue, and a number of others. The list of reportable diseases can be found on the State Veterinarian section of the Alabama Department of Agriculture website. (Just go to agi.alabama.gov, click on State Veterinarian, then click on reportable disease list.) Mostly, these are reported to us by the local veterinarian or our diagnostic laboratory.
Ultimately, regulating, conducting surveillance, and tracing disease play a role in sustaining animal agriculture and safeguarding public health. There is a reason that we have not seen huge increases in the price we pay for meat. In fact, the increases we have seen in cost over the recent past have had to do with a shrinking supply in the case of cattle. However, much of that decrease in supply has had to do with drought and not disease. I have often heard that we are just one really bad disease away from sky-rocketing prices and scarce supplies. My role as State Veterinarian, along with other regulatory officials and personnel, and our animal industry partners, is to keep that really bad disease out of our state and nation. That way, when you order the three-piece dinner, white meat, extra crispy, you will not have to wonder if there will be supply enough to meet your demand.