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More emergency responders needed if avian flu hits again

Budget reflects request to add as many as 80 vets and animal technicians to help in case of a major animal disease outbreak.

Following the experience with the avian influenza outbreak in 2015, the President’s 2017 budget proposal reflects the need to increase investments in the basic response infrastructure, with $30 million in additional funds.

During a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s marketing and regulatory program budgets, Kevin Shea, administrator of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said the primary budget increase for APHIS is for adding as many as 80 first responders.

“If we could have had more trained veterinarians and animal health technicians on the ground faster, I think we would have had a better outcome or quicker outcome,” Shea said of the 2015 avian influenza outbreak. “We need to be able to respond faster and with more people.”

Shea testified that more than 200 animal health professional positions have been eliminated from the agency over the last decade, and the need to rebuild capacity is critical.

He also noted that the consistency of the messaging when on farms created issues in responding quickly, explaining, “By not being fully staffed with emergency responders, we had to rely more than we would have liked on contractors.” That also created mixed messages and conflicting marching orders for producers, Shea testified.

As for other lessons, Shea said the industry realized that it needed to do a better job on biosecurity. “The level of biosecurity was good for an ordinary time, but not during a time for an extraordinary disease,” he explained.

The need to rapidly depopulate poultry houses when birds become infected is a key focus with any new disease cases ahead, with the goal of depopulation in 24 hours. The longer infected birds sit there, the more the level of infection rises, and the disease can spread easily, Shea said.

Through its program of detection, depopulation and disposal, cleaning and disinfection and indemnity payments to producers — at a cost of about $1 billion in federal funds — APHIS was able to stamp out the known detections of the disease.

Ed Avalos, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, testified that APHIS will now provide a flat rate of compensation to producers for cleaning and disinfection, based on the type of facility and number of birds. This will also help provide resources to producers faster and reduce the amount of paperwork producers need to submit to APHIS. APHIS also published an interim rule to allow indemnity to be paid to growers who may not be the owners of the birds.

Shea noted that it is important to get producers compensation quickly so they can get back in business faster, and it also encourages producers to report the disease as soon as possible.

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