MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A lack of veterinarians is making it difficult to keep new animal diseases out of the country. That's the conclusion of two new reports from the National Research Council. NPR's John Nielsen found the problem may also leave the country exposed to an economically disastrous terrorist attack on food animals like cattle.
JOHN NIELSEN reporting:
Corrie Brown, an animal pathologist at the University of Georgia, says there are two ways for veterinarians to become famous.
Ms. CORRIE BROWN (University of Georgia): When a new disease or a foreign disease hits your area, one is to recognize it and sound the alarm, and the other is to miss it.
NIELSEN: Brown, an author of one of the new reports, says the odds of getting famous for missing a disease are, unfortunately, getting a little bigger every day.
Ms. BROWN: Now we have so much international movement of animals, animal products, people. Last year 21 billion animals were produced for food to feed the six billion people in the world. Probably way more than half of those animals actually moved to another country--or the products anyway.
NIELSEN: Brown says the sheer volume of the animal trade can make it hard for veterinarians to catch disease problems like mad cow. But an even bigger problem is that many animals aren't inspected at all. These include endangered animals smuggled in illegally. Legally imported pets can also be an important source of diseases. Back in 2003, for instance, popular pets like the Gambian rat started spreading a potentially lethal virus called monkeypox to people. Robert Cook, chief veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society, says that should have been a wake-up call, but it wasn't.
Mr. ROBERT COOK (Chief Veterinarian, Wildlife Conservation Society): And even when the government said, `OK, we're going to stop rodent movement,' they only restricted it to African rodents because that's where the diseases were from. What about Asian rodents? What about South American rodents? We have to have more holistic methods in place.
NIELSEN: Brown and Cook agree that the various government agencies that handle animal diseases have become much better at sharing technologies since birds started carrying the West Nile virus across the country five years ago. But the reports note that the worst new threats may be posed by terrorists, who intentionally infect farm animals with dangerous diseases.
Ms. BROWN: Most of the serious animal diseases that will halt trade--foot and mouth disease, Newcastle disease, classical swine fever--they are on the international radar screen largely because they are so very contagious. They get into a country, they spread, they're hard to control. There's no need for weaponization; they spread just fine all by themselves.
NIELSEN: To prevent that scenario, the report says the government needs to reorganize the highly fragmented animal health system, which currently involves dozens of state and federal agencies. The result, Brown says, is that people who study agricultural diseases rarely talk to people who study human diseases, and hardly anybody talks to people who study wildlife. In terms of reorganization...
Ms. BROWN: You know, I like to think of a Jackson Pollock drawing. We should all be integrated together, like the lines in that drawing, rather than looking at organizational charts for each organization and putting them side by side.
NIELSEN: One of the reports says another big problem is that few young veterinarians seem to want to fight the global spread of new diseases. Of the 2,300 students who graduated from veterinary school last year, most said they wanted to work with dogs, cats and horses. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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