ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Department of Agriculture’s animal health program is “totally incapable” of handling a large-scale animal health emergency without considerable help from other state and federal agencies, State Veterinarian Roger Olson told members of the Senate Health Subcommittee this week.
Riding a wave of public preoccupation with bioterror preparedness, veterinary and farm advocates throughout the country have been petitioning for disaster support to protect what they say are vulnerable U.S. farm populations.
Reports authored by federal scientists point to emerging and established contagious diseases like foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and anthrax – all of which can devastate animal populations – as potential weapons of agroterror.
As one of the country’s top-20 poultry producers, Maryland is no less vulnerable to threats against animal health. Poultry and livestock products account for almost 64 percent of the value of Maryland’s agricultural sales, according to 1997 farm census data.
The MDA, whose budget has shrunk over the past decade, has animal health emergency preparations in place, Olson told the Senate panel Tuesday, but couldn’t support an animal health emergency – terrorist-linked or not – without more aid.
“We do need additional funding, if we’re going to do our part in active surveillance for terror agents and ones that could be introduced as foreign diseases by accident,” Olson said.
It would take “several hundred thousand dollars, at least” to bring the health program up to date, he said, and more to prepare for a health emergency.
Obsolete and worn laboratory equipment needs replacing, Olson said, and Animal Health staff must be educated and personnel retrained to prepare for animal health emergencies.
Cuts in agriculture spending have shrunk the Animal Health Program from a staff of 75 to 42 in the past 15 years, Olson said.
With those employees, the program must staff five veterinary laboratories, provide statewide field inspectors and supply personnel for the program’s Annapolis headquarters. Five department veterinary positions are vacant.
With limited resources of its own, the agency has relied heavily on the cooperation of other departments in monitoring animal health and preparing for health emergencies.
“Collaboration is absolutely essential,” Olson told the Senate committee. “By itself the Animal Health Program is totally incapable of dealing with a major animal health emergency.”
Maryland farmers, veterinarians and agriculture authorities anticipated natural animal health threats like the unintentional spread of epidemic diseases long before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The agriculture department has had collaborative emergency plans in place, and under continuous review, for several years.
The MDA and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene teamed up to monitor and control West Nile Virus in Maryland when the disease first appeared in 1999.
Last year’s outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom prompted the MDA and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency to develop an animal health emergency plan within the state’s pre-existing emergency operating plan. The two agencies have collaborated regularly to control avian influenza outbreaks in Maryland.
“We do have a lot of resources available,” said MDA Coordinator of Disaster Services Jacob Casper, liaison between MDA and the emergency management agency.
Casper is chairman of the Animal Disaster Planning Advisory Committee, which meets quarterly to discuss animal emergency needs across industries. The committee’s advice helped the MDA and the emergency agency develop several health emergency plans, Casper said.
Since Sept. 11, federal and state agencies have stepped up support for animal health awareness.
The MDA received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to train a state laboratory veterinarian at the national Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Plum Island, N.Y., Olson said, the first time Maryland has been able to obtain such support.
With the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, the state has begun an “intense program” to train local veterinarians in identifying and reporting dangerous infectious diseases.
The department has also set up a veterinary disaster hotline with information on bioterror-related and naturally occurring diseases.
With a $50,000 grant from the USDA Olsen and Casper hope to improve animal surveillance. They’ll tap local veterinarians for updated contact information and create databases of information on local farms. Olsen’s dream is to create an animal tracking program using satellite global positioning systems.
None of these plans can be sustained without money. Statements from Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s office indicate he will consider terrorism preparedness needs in next year’s budget, but it’s unclear whether this will work in the MDA’s favor.
“(Funding) is a chronic problem, but it’s particularly acute now when we have threats like this,” Olson said. “If it comes through money devoted to terrorism and defense, we’ll take it.”