Research council urges better animal health monitoring

The United States needs a new, high-level agency to coordinate efforts against outbreaks of emerging animal diseases?mad-cow disease, avian flu, West Nile virus and the like?arising from either natural causes or terrorism, according to a new report from the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academies of Science.

Animal-disease outbreaks can have huge economic impacts. Avian flu has resulted in the loss of more than 100 million birds, mostly commercially farmed chickens and ducks. Many zoonotic diseases also endanger public health: Avian flu has killed 34 people as of January 2005.

"Given that almost three-quarters of animal diseases can infect humans, collaboration between animal-health and public-health organizations is urgently needed," the research council said.

The responsibility for safeguarding animals against terrorism is shared by the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, with dozens of federal and state agencies, university laboratories and private companies monitoring and maintaining animal health.

The Agriculture Department is implementing the National Animal Identification System to track all livestock in the country, with use of radio-frequency identification tags, among other technologies.

However, many gaps exist, particularly in federal oversight of nonlivestock animal diseases, according to the report titled, "Animal Health at the Crossroads: Preventing, Detecting, and Diagnosing Animal Diseases". For example, the USDA's existing National Animal Health Laboratory Network "lacks surge capacity and is not prepared for disease agents and toxins outside a relatively narrow list of diseases," the report said.

Centralized coordination and new systems for sharing information among agencies and databases are needed, as well as improved communication with the public, the report said. There also need to be stronger links for public and private laboratories, and better connections with public health systems for human diseases.

The federal government has been slow to adopt new technologies for preventing and rapidly detecting diseases, the report says, including "information, sensory and genomic" technologies.

New global agreements and systems are needed to prevent and detect animal diseases worldwide, and to tighten controls over the sale and possession of exotic and wild animals, the report concluded.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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