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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.
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