How prepared is Wisconsin to deal with foot-and-mouth disease?

Jan Shepel
A firefighter looks on as about 600 sheep from France and Great Britain are burned as a precaution against the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, at a farm in Bondues, near Lille, northern France in March 2001.

Worrying about foreign animal diseases like the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) can keep veterinarians and regulators up at night. The threat posed to animal agriculture if that disease reared its ugly head can’t be overestimated. For Wisconsin’s State Veterinarian, Dr. Paul McGraw, FMD has been at the top of his list for some time.

His Division of Animal Health staff has been stretched thin investigating swine that have vesicles which look like they could be caused by FMD – a disease that can affect all animals with cloven hooves. These regulators have sampled 1,758 pigs and conducted 701 investigations on pigs that had these symptoms. Happily, none were positive for FMD.

Contaminated vaccines

Now it turns out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that hog vaccines have been contaminated with a virus for Seneca A – a disease that causes no public health risk and really doesn’t make pigs sick. However, it is causing the vesicle symptoms that mimic FMD in hogs that have been vaccinated with the contaminated vaccine. McGraw said he doesn’t yet know how the product being used by hog producers got contaminated.

“We’ve had sows show up at slaughter plants with these vesicles and of course we must investigate. It’s been a drain on our work staff,” McGraw said. Though Seneca A is not close to and doesn’t act like FMD, those physical symptoms require a robust investigation from regulators and veterinarians.

Just going through that process with the hogs made a federal-state exercise on FMD even more real last week. Wisconsin animal health officials were notified early in the week that FMD had been discovered – which didn’t happen in real life. But staff from the Division of Animal Health went into a full-blown drill on what would need to happen if the disease were truly discovered. A federal incident commander was part of the simulation which went on for three-and-a-half days.

FMD simulation

The latest simulation was part of a multi-year FMD exercise between veterinarians and incident managers. Wisconsin’s staff worked with the “Gold Incident Management” staff from USDA, McGraw said, and working together gave them a good sense of what a real emergency would be like.

A sign is seen outside Farringford Farm at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, England  Feb. 21 2001, where Ministry of Agriculture officials are investigating the possibility of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

McGraw said the first thing that happens is that he issues “stop movement orders” because if the movement of animals is quickly halted it allows investigators to get at the source of the problem. Wisconsin also gives his agency the authority to quarantine livestock premises.

The state’s livestock premises registry also gives his regulators a leg up on knowing where animals are and who needs to be contacted to fend off further infections with a highly contagious disease like FMD.

“It gives us a look at how we would really get ahead of something like this,” he said. “The 72-hour stop movement at the front end really gives us a chance to find out where it’s moving.”

McGraw is working with the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association because such a disease outbreak will require coordination with private veterinarians.

“It gave me a few goose bumps. Hopefully we never see it, but if we ever do, I’m confident our staff is up to handling it,” he said.

He found that the biggest challenge during the exercise was communication. “We need to communicate with our livestock partners that handling a disease like this is necessary to protect our industry.”

Communicating with the 70,000 holders of livestock premises registration would be a first step in case of an outbreak, and that communication would take all forms – post cards, emails and telephone calls, he said. Phone banks would likely have to be set up to handle call volume necessary to deal with a foreign animal disease of this magnitude.

Livestock Premises rule updated

McGraw reported on the swine investigations and the FMD drill during a May 24 meeting in Madison of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s citizen policy board. During that meeting the board also approved a final draft rule on the regulations for Livestock Premises Registration – the regulation that makes it possible for McGraw to know where various types of livestock are kept in the state.

The state created the rule in 2003 after the discovery of “mad cow disease” in a U.S. cow that had been imported from Canada. State officials felt premises registration was a good pro-active step in protecting animal health, the livestock industry and the security of the food chain.

Current regulations allow a registered location to have a primary and up to three secondary locations under a single livestock premises code. These secondary locations are those that share or commingle animals with the primary location and are related to the main location – an example would be a dry cow lot where animals come and go from the home farm.

USDA inspectors at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., inspect the baggage of travelers arriving from overseas Friday, March 30, 2001, hoping to keep contagious foot-and-mouth disease from infecting American cattle.

The changes approved by the board were made because these secondary premises are not searchable in the database and would not come up as part of a “group of interest” in the event of a disease outbreak. Before the change those secondary premises, despite being in an area where a disease is present would not be retrieved in a search if the primary premises isn’t itself in the area of interest.

That flaw, which was corrected by the new rule, meant the secondary premises wouldn’t get notified and might not get the testing necessary in the event of a disease outbreak.

The new rule solves that problem by requiring these secondary premises to be registered separately with their own concurrent premises code so that these facilities won’t be ignored in the case of future disease outbreaks.

McGraw said Wisconsin joins other Midwestern states in establishing a free premises registration program with unique codes assigned to each location where livestock are kept. There is currently no federal mandate for livestock premises registration.

The rule affects livestock producers – dairy, beef, swine, poultry, farm-raised deer, sheep, goats, fish as well as horse owners and stable operators, livestock markets dealers and truckers, slaughter houses, rendering and dead stock processors, operators of livestock exhibitions and veterinary clinics.