State officials warn livestock producers to watch for foreign disease

State officials don't want to alarm livestock producers (or the public), but they do want everyone ready for the time when a foreign disease might infect area livestock.

State officials don't want to alarm livestock producers (or the public), but they do want everyone ready for the time when a foreign disease might infect area livestock. That is why they held a couple of meetings last week to let producers know what Illinois is doing to prepare for such an emergency. Amber Wilson, an associate consultant with SES Inc., an environmental consulting company from suburban Kansas City, Mo., talked in Nashville on Tuesday and at Maschoff Pork Farms south of Carlyle on Thursday.

She said producers need to be aware of the potential for terrorism but they also need to be aware that many problems are introduced accidentally without any knowledge of the consequences.

For example, the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain was traced to one producer feeding unprocessed scraps to his sheep he had gotten from a foreign freight ship.

Experts are trying to anticipate and plan for any disaster, including terrorism, before it happens, Wilson said.

"Is there an imminent threat? No. Do we know it's on their (terrorists') radar. Yes," she said.

Wilson said she knows how accessible livestock producers are from her years of flying around country talking to people with livestock problems. But those same producers are those the country will depend on to recognize and help stop any foreign disease problems.

"The front line for foreign disease in the United States is the producers," Wilson said.

They see the animals every day and will notice anything unusual. But it is not easy. The devastating foreign diseases are similar to many domestic problems.

"You often see a lame hog, but if you see a large number of lame hogs, notify your vet," she said.

In Illinois, if the vet suspects any trouble, he or she will notify the area veterinarian in charge or the state vet and get disease samples sent to a lab. Rarely is there reason for further bother.

"The state vet averages about 24 calls per year, but you never hear about them," Wilson said. "You won't unless there's a big problem."

If a foreign disease is found, it triggers an emergency response with a disaster declaration by the governor. Animal movement is halted and quarantines are set. Individual problems with animals are appraised and depopulation, a polite term for killing animals, begins, along with disposal.

"Obviously, you would like to not get the disease in the first place," Wilson said. "Next best is to contain it as soon as possible."

Wilson said that in Illinois -- which sells $1.8 billion in livestock and poultry, $6.8 billion in crops each year and moves 5.1 million animals a year in and out of the state, including 3.5 million cattle -- there is potential for severe problems.

She gave the example of the scare about bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- mad cow disease -- in 2003 in Washington state.

"A single animal shut down the entire beef export market for months. At the last report, they were estimating it cost about $5 billion," Wilson said.

The state will rely on traceability -- where the animals have been, where they went and what and who they were in contact with -- to hunt down where any problem might have spread. That is why record keeping is so important, she said.

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