December 2007
From the State Vet's Office

Are We Working Ourselves Out of a Job?

by Dr. Tony Frazier

I have never seen classical swine fever, formerly known as hog cholera. In fact, a few days ago, it took me a while to think of its new name, classical swine fever (CSF).

I have never seen a calf infected by screwworms, rabies in a dog or cat, or even tuberculosis in a cow. There are a number of other diseases that have, at one time, occurred in our state we no longer see.

I think that speaks well of a vast number of entities who played integral roles in eradicating various diseases from our state—diseases that not only were often devastating to the livestock producer, but also to companion animal owners.

The members of these eradication teams included private practicing veterinarians, regulatory animal health officials, producers, public health officials, stockyard owners, pet owners, researchers, legislators and slaughter establishment managers to name just a few.

Pondering where we have been, where we are now and where we may be going in the future of animal disease, I had a passing thought, "Are we working ourselves out of a job?"

As I said it was a passing thought. I realize diseases are seldom eradicated from the face of the earth—only from various areas, regions or countries. We have been able to eradicate or greatly reduce the prevalence of a number of diseases because of the concerted effort and energy spent on the goal. And we observed the diseases, paid attention to what it was trying to teach us and acted accordingly.

CSF is a viral disease of swine that was first described in the United States in the early 19th century. It does not cause food-borne illness in humans, but causes huge economic losses to pork producers. This highly contagious disease was eradicated from the United States in 1978, following an intense 16-year effort.

According to a USDA Fact Sheet on the disease, there are only 16 countries in the world who are free of CSF. The fact we are free of the disease means that if it should re-establish in our country, it would be very devastating.

The Netherlands, for example had been CSF free when an outbreak occurred in 1997-1998. The outbreak involved 429 herds and resulted in over 12 million pigs being destroyed in an effort to control the disease in that country. Countries who are free of a specific disease are particularly susceptible because there is no natural immunity and no vaccination program against the disease.

The most common transmission of the CSF virus is either pig to pig contact or feeding of uncooked pork products to swine. It has been found the virus itself may survive up to a few years in frozen raw pork. In addition to an aggressive vaccination program, it was necessary to change the feeding habits of hogs to get rid of the disease.

There is a law in the Code of Alabama enacted in 1969. The law says it is unlawful to feed garbage to swine. The law goes on to define garbage as animal or vegetable waste resulting from the handling, preparation, cooking or consumption of foods including animal or fowl carcasses.

Our field personnel in cooperation with USDA Veterinary Services continue to monitor the state for garbage feeding. This is done by checking restaurants, school lunchrooms and other institutions that generate plate waste, to assure they are not giving their garbage to a person to feed to swine. While Alabama is not a large swine producing state, there are several sizeable operations here. And even though the CSF virus is not here in our country, we continue to participate in the surveillance program.

CSF is just one example of the diseases that has been eradicated or drastically reduced in Alabama. I have heard some of our older cattle producers talk about how screwworms would infest the navel area of a newborn calf or castration and dehorning wounds.

I have heard some elderly folks talk about how common it was to see a rabid stray dog come into their community. Rabies still exists in Alabama, but far from the common occurrence there once was. I have heard the stories, but haven’t seen the diseases. I am happy to be able to say this. This means the efforts to rid our state of certain diseases have worked. And it continues to be effective.

So when I ask myself, "Are we working ourselves out of a job?" I consider the following facts: 1) Most all of the diseases we are concerned about exist somewhere in the world. 2) We have a seaport and two international airports in our state. 3) We border three states with seaports. 4) There are thousands of people who enter our country every day from other countries—many of whom have the diseases that concern us.

I consider those facts and realize it’s time to get back to work and quit pondering silly questions.