June 2010
From the State Vet's Office

DSI Alabama (Disease Scene Investigation)

If you have been watching the news recently, you have certainly heard a great deal about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was interesting to listen to the news broadcasts during the first few days of the event. Somewhere during the segment most of the reporters made one common statement. In referring to the lack of the quick ability to shut off the leak they would consistently say, "Everyone knew such an event COULD occur, but nobody really thought it would." It is a variation of what we heard after Hurricane Katrina. "Everyone knew that the levies could not withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but nobody really thought a Cat. 5 would ever hit New Orleans." I am sure the list goes on and on involving serious miscalculations of what "nobody thought would ever happen." I certainly do not want to ever hear and certainly not be quoted as saying, "We always knew there was a possibility we could have an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, but we didn’t really think it would ever happen."

We commonly hear of the phenomena known as the "100-year flood," "100-year blizzard" or "100-year drought." I even heard someone in the past few days refer to the Nashville flood as a "1,000-year flood." Those types of comments, while on one hand, describe the enormous magnitude of the event, on the other hand, give us a false sense-of-security it will be a long, long time before we see something like that again. Therefore, while we know there is a possibility those disasters are few and far between, I suppose it is human nature to think or hope it will not happen to us. As the State Veterinarian, I cannot afford to think like that. That is why we stress over and over that we need to do Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) investigations —- even though it is very unlikely we are actually dealing with an FAD.

FAD investigations are initiated either by the federal Area Veterinarian in Charge (AVIC) or by me when there are signs that could be consistent with an FAD. My office is on the first floor of the Richard Beard Building, headquarters of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. Other than during the Southeastern Livestock Exposition with the stock shows and rodeo, and the Alabama State Fair, there are no animals to be found around here. We depend on private practicing veterinarians, producers or our diagnostic laboratories to alert us to those cases that could call for an FAD investigation.

Signs consistent with FAD include lesions or sores on the mouth, muzzle or around the feet — especially blisters, high percentages of morbidity (illness) or mortality (death loss), hemorrhagic diseases — bleeding from all body orifices, and central nervous system problems. Then the last one sort of catches everything else. That is any disease "out of the ordinary." You know, one you only see every 100 years or so. When a disease fits into one of those categories, I want to know about it. Then between the AVIC and I, an investigation may be initiated.

I have often said that other than the pint of blood we take from the producer and the barium enema, an FAD investigation is a reasonably painless process. Well, I have a confession to make. There is actually no blood collected from the producer…and there is no barium enema. When we initiate an FAD investigation, we assign the case to a FAD Diagnostician (FADD). An FADD is someone who completed special training at Plum Island, NY, where they are taught how to conduct the investigation which includes disease recognition and sample collection.

The FADD tries to make contact with the producer as soon as possible after it is decided an investigation is warranted and the case is assigned. Our goal is to make the initial contact within eight hours of our being notified. The FADD will set up a time to go to the farm of origin to do a physical examination, collect samples of blood, saliva, or other fluids or tissues, and get a very thorough history of possible means of exposure to the affected animals. The FADD uses his or her training and judgment to decide how to proceed. If, for example, the producer has just returned from Japan where there is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the cattle, along with the daughter’s pet ewe, have sores and blisters in their mouths, the premises will likely be quarantined and samples sent overnight to the laboratory. When dealing with a highly-contagious disease, time is extremely important.

Most often, when the FADD goes to the farm, the situation is found to be not so urgent. Maybe a cow or two out of the herd have mouth lesions, there have been no herd additions in quite a while, and there is no history of travel or other activities suggesting introduction of a FAD virus or other infectious agent. At that point the FADD may or may not collect samples to rule out any FAD, and may or may not quarantine an individual animal. The laboratory results are usually back within a week and I sleep better knowing we are out there riding herd. I can be wrong many, many times by calling for an FAD investigation when it turns out to be negative, but if I am wrong just once, by not calling for an investigation…well, that’s just something I don’t want to consider.

I have a friend who told me about his community starting a rural fire department when he was growing up. The community came up with some money and was able to purchase an old, but functional fire engine. The community didn’t have any money at that time to house the engine so, when it wasn’t ginning season, the engine was kept under the drive through at the cotton gin. A period of time went by and there were no calls for the use of the fire engine. Then one Friday night, the gin caught fire. The men of the community were called to the fire. When they got there, the battery on the fire engine was dead and they barely were able to pull the engine away from the cotton gin before the structure burned to the ground. That was years ago and it is certainly not a poor reflection on our volunteer fire departments that have very good equipment and highly-trained firemen. They let us all rest better at night because they are "on call." But I think you get the point. Every time we do an FAD investigation, we are keeping the battery on our fire engine charged.