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New systems improve animal disease tracking

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

In the wake of the nation's scare over its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "mad cow disease," state and federal officials are stepping up measures to track foreign animal diseases.

In Georgia, the Reportable Animal Disease System is being incorporated into the Georgia Agricultural Information Sharing and Analysis Center network. RADS will allow state officials to monitor animal disease across the state.

Based on public health system

"This system is based on the Georgia Division of Public Health's human disease system, which tracks diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis," said Nelwyn Stone, assistant state veterinarian. "Farmers and veterinarians will use RADS to report animal diseases."

Stone said a farmer, county extension agent or veterinarian can access the system through the Web and quickly report an animal disease case.

"Farmers usually call their vet first. Then the vet calls us," Stone said. "If it's a foreign animal disease, like bluetongue or foot-and-mouth disease, we inform the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and a veterinary medical officer reports to the farm."

The new, computer-driven system should make this quicker, Stone said.

Keeping diseases contained

"When an animal disease is reported, we want to get our state veterinary officials out to the farm quickly," she said. "If it's only on one farm, we want to keep it on one farm."

In July, Stone will meet with counterparts in other states to discuss each state's system.

"The overall goal is to make it easier for farmers, farm workers, lab workers and veterinarians to report suspect diseases," Stone said. "It will keep animals in our state safe and ensure diseases like avian flu don't spread if they do occur."

RADS was created by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. It's funded by the Georgia Division of Public Health. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency will integrate the technology into their monitoring systems.

Stone said she hopes the system will go on-line this spring. Computer problems, though, could push it back to the fall.

Federal program will track origin

The federal government is working on the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, a system that will track animals back to their origin.

"It ... can identify all animals and premises potentially exposed to an animal with a foreign animal disease within 48 hours of discovery," said Charles McPeake, an animal scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Maintaining the health and economic viability of U.S. animal agriculture is critical to the industry and the safety of our food supply," he said.

The federal system will enable foreign animal disease outbreaks to be quickly contained, McPeake said. It will help meet shoppers' demands, too, for foods that can be traced to their source.

Using the federal system, officials will be able to trace an animal back to its farm and everywhere in-between. It's still being developed. But when it's in place, it will require that animals get an identification number at birth.

Tracking domestic animals

The system will track cattle, bison, hogs, sheep, goats, horses, poultry, game birds, farmed fish and domestic deer, elk, llamas, alpacas, ostriches and emus, McPeake said.

It isn't a knee-jerk reaction to last year's mad cow case, he said.

"The industry and government have been working on this system for a couple of years," he said. "Now it will be phased in over three years."

The USAIP Web site reports that the system's first phase, premises ID by state, should be complete this year.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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