Effort to fight animal-borne disease lag

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Report: Efforts to fight animal-borne disease lag
David Wahlberg - Staff
Wednesday, August 6, 2003

The United States has a piecemeal approach to controlling diseases that cross over from animals to humans, and the effort needs to be better coordinated and funded, according to a report released Tuesday by a public health advocacy group.

"Despite the surge in animal-borne diseases threatening Americans, the country lacks a concerted national program to prevent and control these illnesses, which can impact humans, animals and food, in the U.S. and abroad," says the report by the Trust for America's Health.

The group examined the country's handling of five outbreaks: monkeypox, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease.

The United States hasn't had any cases of mad cow or its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, and chronic wasting disease has been limited to elk and deer. But the illnesses were included because of their potential to spread to humans.

Lack of coordination among seven Cabinet-level federal departments and state and local agencies that deal with health, animals, food, wildlife and other areas has led to confusion and missed opportunities, the report claims. It calls for increased funding for public health labs and researchers, a better national disease tracking system and congressional hearings to streamline responsibilities for handling animal-borne diseases.

"It's time to reform public health," said Shelley Hearne, executive director of Trust for America's Health. She said the existing system is "truly a disease du jour approach; what it's doing is putting us all at risk."

The report said agencies have improved many programs, notably the CDC's electronic surveillance system started to track mosquito-borne viruses.

Among the specific allegations in the report:

The first monkeypox case in May wasn't reported to the CDC for nearly two weeks. It took several more days for the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service and customs officials to ban the importation of Gambian giant rats, which had passed the virus to prairie dogs, which spread it to people.

A lack of linkages between disease reporting networks in cities and states and among veterinary labs stalled the initial probe of West Nile virus in New York in 1999. The disease has now appeared in nearly every state.

The public health response to Lyme disease, which first appeared in Lyme, Conn., in 1977, "was left to evolve as the disease spread across the country." Annual cases continue to increase.

The sometimes-overlapping involvement of the FDA and the USDA in regulating food could thwart efforts to ward off mad cow, which was first diagnosed in England in 1986 and appeared for the first time in Canada this year.

Efforts to stop chronic wasting disease are underfunded, even though the illness could wipe out elk and deer populations and spread to humans.

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