of Veterinary Medicine
This morning we traveled to the Verden District on the Aller River to visit the Mobile Infectious Control Center. Since a large part of my internship with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) last summer involved emergency response planning, I was excited to see what was involved with disaster planning in Germany. When we arrived, I found that the location was pretty much what I expected: a series of trailers and warehouses surrounding a mostly-empty parking lot. It seemed pretty desolate during our visit, but of course that extra space is necessary during an emergency.
We spent the morning listening to Dr. Ursula Gerdes from LAVES (the State Office), who discussed outbreak management in Germany, described an actual outbreak scenario of low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) that occurred in 2008, and taught us about the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) situation in Turkey.
Just as I felt last summer when working for APHIS, emergency planning in Germany is somewhat abstract and hard to grasp without having ever participated in an outbreak.
From what I’ve gathered, however, an outbreak in food animals (such as FMD which is the most feared scenario) would be managed at the local level (42 local authoriti es exist in Lower Saxony), assistance in the form of testing and advice would come from the State Officials at LAVES, and more assistance in the form of supervision and directions would be given by the Ministry of Agriculture (on the National level). The idea that local government generally takes control and gets assistance from higher authorities is similar to the way that emergencies are managed in the USA. LAVES was formed in 2001 in response to a bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE otherwise known as “Mad Cow”) outbreak. It is now comprised of 5 divisions: the Central Service (which takes care of administrative tasks), Food Safety, Animal Health, Feed Safety, and Diagnostic Laboratories.
The Food Safety and Animal Health divisions would be the most actively involved in an agricultural outbreak, and they would be involved developing plans to eradicate disease, developing contingency plans, as well as coordinating measures and doing public relations work. We then took a tour of the unit itself. Highlights include one-way showers for decontamination and an enormous stockpile of supplies (everything you can imagine from vaccines to L and XL biohazard suits to garbage bags) just sitting there waiting for use.
From my experience last summer I remember that one big problem with emergency management is in training veterinarians, medical professionals, and public health officials to be proficient in how disaster planning works. Currently FEMA has a set of online courses about the Incident Command System, which is the standard by which emergencies are handled in the US. Briefly, one person is designated as the Incident Commander, who has several people under him/her, who has several people under him/her, and so on to take on roles such as “Operations Management”, “Planning”, “Logistics”, etc, so each leading person only reports to the person above them. (As I said before, the whole thing is really abstract if you haven’t actually participated in a large-scale emergency). The task of the Incident Commander is not specifically designated to one person, but it is decided at the time of the event who might be most appropriate based on their level of expertise. I found it interesting that in Germany the designations of who will take charge in an outbreak have already been made according to their government position, eliminating the problem of not having enough trained personnel for the job. However, they might sacrifice some flexibility in the process.In the afternoon we headed to MasterRind, an artificial insemination facility that sells semen for breeding Holsteins. While they lectured about their role in outbreak control and gave us a tour of their facility, I was most intrigued by our late afternoon discussion of a National Animal Identification Program in Germany. Several of us attending the Germany trip had lobbied for a similar program to be created back at home on a previous veterinary “Lobby Day” and had discovered that there is a lot of opposition to having such a system in the US because farmers do not want to be held accountable if a foodborne outbreak can be traced to their farm.
In Germany, it was mandated and has been ongoing since 1999. In brief, any animal that is considered an agricultural animal (cattle, pig, sheep, goat, horses- including both commercial animals and those for personal use) must be enrolled in the program. When each animal is born it receives a passport, and two yellow ear tags with a unique identification number (containing information about where it was born).
All of this information is maintained in a central database in Munich, and there is an obligation to report any change in the animal’s status (bought, sold, died) via internet or a special postcard within 7 days of the change. Veterinary administrators enforce the rules and farmers who do not follow them are fined. The obvious benefit is better food safety and control. It is easier to trace a foodborne outbreak to a particular farm when the animal can be tracked through this system. However there is an additional benefit in that veterinarians have better access to an animal’s vaccination and treatment records when they are stored in a central database. I wonder what it would take to get this system approved and started in the US….
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