Last semester I sat in on a lunch talk given by one of my classmates about his experiences during the Smith-Kilborne Fellowship. It’s a program offered annually by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is operated under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Its purpose is to enhance veterinary students’ understanding of foreign animal diseases, which potentially threaten the health of domestic animals and, by extension, human health. What do I mean by foreign animal diseases? Well, any infectious disease that can be passed from animal to animal and is currently NOT found in the U.S. in high enough numbers to be statistically or economically important—but is highly prevalent or heavily impacting the economy of other countries—is considered a foreign animal disease in the U.S.
For example, many people remember the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain that wreaked havoc on the meat and dairy industry. Foot-and-mouth disease virus is highly contagious and only affects cloven-hooved animals like pigs, goats, sheep, and cows, causing fever and painful blisters on the feet, muzzles, and teats. The mortality rate is low with foot-and-mouth, meaning most animals will survive the disease. The real cost to producers isn’t the death of livestock, but rather the slow growth rates and poor milk production of affected animals. I was pretty surprised to learn that foot-and-mouth is important due to its economic impacts, rather than its direct effect on animal health. Britain’s tourism industry was also hard hit that summer, when the ash and smoke from the millions of cows, sheep, and pigs that were slaughtered and burned to prevent the spread of disease drifted across the countryside.
However, some foreign animal diseases have direct severe effects on animal and human health. Highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza, for example, cause severe swelling and hemorrhage of organs, muscles, and the upper respiratory tract—the mortality rate can reach 100% in a flock. Additionally, people can become infected when working with infected poultry (either live or deceased), resulting in disease ranging from conjunctivitis and flu-like symptoms to pneumonia.
So as you can guess, countries work very hard to detect and prevent the spread of foreign diseases before they set up shop in-country.
I was fascinated to hear about my colleague’s experience during foreign animal disease training. Trainees practiced giving press conferences, assessing biosecurity of a farm or research lab, and investigating disease outbreaks. Besides evaluating the signs, disease outbreak investigation also involves interviewing farm or lab staff to learn what was happening at the facility before the outbreak and to identify risk factors that increase the probability of the disease spreading. Students in the program even got to tour the facility at Plum Island where research is done on the presentation and treatment of foreign animal diseases! The Smith-Kilborne Fellowship sounded like a great way to get hands-on experience—I’ll admit I was a little bit jealous.