WASHINGTON (July 18) -- The United States needs a new high-level mechanism to coordinate the currently fragmented framework for confronting new and emerging animal-borne diseases, such as mad cow disease, avian influenza, and West Nile virus, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Also, a second Research Council report released today says stronger efforts are needed to recruit more veterinarians and other scientists into veterinary research. Both reports note that a growing shortage in the number of veterinary pathologists, lab animal scientists, and other veterinary researchers -- especially those involved in public health -- is making it more difficult to meet mounting challenges in animal health.
The recently confirmed case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in June 2005 illustrated the potential economic impact of disease outbreaks, as some countries closed their markets to U.S. beef and beef products. Emerging diseases and the possibility of bioterrorism targeted at the food supply are among the evolving threats that challenge the U.S. animal health framework.
Currently, dozens of federal and state agencies, university laboratories, and private companies monitor and maintain animal health in this country. Many of the government agencies perform similar functions, while gaps in responsibility also exist, particularly in federal oversight of nonlivestock animal diseases. Animal Health at the Crossroads: Preventing, Detecting, and Diagnosing Animal Diseases says centralized coordination is needed to harmonize the work of public and private groups that safeguard animal health. The coordinating mechanism should facilitate the sharing of information among agencies and connect key databases, as well as improve communication with the public, especially during animal disease outbreaks.
The report also calls for stronger links in the network of public and private labs that test for and diagnose animal diseases. The establishment of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which links labs performing tests for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a good start, but the network lacks the capacity to deal with multiple outbreaks and currently is only prepared to detect a narrow list of diseases. Moreover, the animal health network needs better connections to the public health systems that detect and diagnose human disease, the committee said.
Agencies responsible for protecting against animal disease outbreaks, such as USDA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, should support the development of new technologies for preventing and rapidly detecting diseases, the report says. These agencies should also take advantage of emerging information, sensory, and genomic technologies. Such innovations are needed to respond to the growing risk of disease spread caused by factors such as an increase in agricultural trade and large-scale production of food animals.
Given that the complex, rapidly growing global food system contributes to the spread of new diseases into the United States, the committee urged the U.S. to enter into new agreements with other countries and international organizations to create global systems for preventing and detecting animal diseases. New regulations are also needed to tighten controls over the sale and possession of exotic, nondomesticated, and wild animals.
To garner public support for strengthening the country's animal health framework, the government and private sector should raise awareness of the threat that animal diseases pose to human health and the $2 trillion U.S. food and fiber industry. Given that almost three-quarters of animal diseases can infect humans, collaboration between animal health and public health organizations is urgently needed. In addition, USDA, state animal health agencies, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and colleges of veterinary medicine should develop and implement a national plan to train farm workers, zookeepers, and other front-line workers to recognize and rapidly report any signs of disease.
Unfortunately, the increasing challenges in animal health come at a time when the number of veterinarians pursuing careers in public health and veterinary research is declining. USDA, for example, predicts a shortfall of several hundred veterinarians on its staff by 2007, and a previous Research Council report projected a deficit of 336 veterinary pathologists in the United States and Canada by that time as well.
Boosting the number of veterinary researchers and improving their training and facilities is the focus of the second report, Critical Needs for Research in Veterinary Science. The report says current funding for veterinary research has not kept pace with the rising challenges posed by new and emerging animal diseases. Society's need to protect against these diseases is outgrowing our veterinary knowledge base, the report warns. For example, it took several weeks to correctly diagnose the first U.S. cases of West Nile virus in humans, which occurred in New York during 1999. The report blames veterinary students' waning interest in research on a variety of factors, such as how long it takes to obtain both a doctorate in veterinary medicine (D.V.M.) and a Ph.D., substantial tuition debt, sparse financial support for graduate students in veterinary sciences, and the limited amount of basic science research in veterinary school curricula.
A federal debt-repayment initiative and more combined D.V.M./Ph.D. programs would encourage more veterinary students interested in research to enter the field, said the committee that wrote the report. But changing the culture of colleges of veterinary medicine will be equally important, the report adds. To that end, the AVMA Council on Education, which accredits veterinary schools, should strengthen its assessment of research opportunities that are available to students. For example, summer research programs could be expanded, and academic programs that support high-quality, cutting-edge scientific research should be developed.
The committee also outlined a research agenda that emphasizes interdisciplinary study, which is particularly important in veterinary research because it affects both animal and human health. Veterinary scientists should be encouraged to collaborate across disciplines and be rewarded for successful teamwork.
There are hurdles to interdisciplinary research, however. If an interdisciplinary research proposal does not fit the mission of any single agency, for example, it can be difficult to get funding. To overcome this, veterinary scientists should encourage the development of a long-term national interagency strategy for funding veterinary research. To begin with, the National Institutes of Health should consider creating a veterinary liaison position, and pursue integrated veterinary and human health studies via the NIH Roadmap, the new initiative to identify studies important to the agency's overall research portfolio. Such efforts will encourage scientists in all fields related to veterinary science to seek collaborative opportunities. Dependable, permanent sources of funding also are needed for studies that are critical to protecting the country, such as research on wildlife pathogens that could be used by terrorists.
Noting that hundreds of thousands of square feet of new and renovated facilities are needed to train additional veterinary students to meet public health demands, the committee urged veterinary associations to mount a campaign to inform policy-makers about the need for new research space. There is a particularly urgent need for more biocontainment space for the study of dangerous pathogens. For example, although new facilities at the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, were designed and partially built in response to a USDA 10-year strategic plan, not all the needs documented in the plan have been met, according to the committee. The strategic plan's recommendations, as well as those of a Homeland Security presidential directive on the matter, should be implemented immediately.
Animal Health at the Crossroads was sponsored by the National Academies. Critical Needs for Research in Veterinary Science was sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Animal Hospital Association, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, American Veterinary Medical Association, National Association of Federal Veterinarians, and the National Center for Research Resources. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.
Cite This Page: