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Preventing Disease Outbreaks in Livestock – Now There’s An App for That

A veterinarian entering cattle health information on the EPS system
The EPS system allows veterinarians to enter animal health information in the field.

Veterinarians are our nation’s first responders for animal health. They act as the primary line of defense against animal disease outbreaks and are essential to the protection of our animal industries and economy. Food animal veterinarians, or those that treat livestock and poultry, are often responsible for monitoring the health of thousands of animals spread across vast geographic areas. While some diseases can be readily diagnosed, others are harder to identify in the field. In these cases, veterinarians typically ship samples to a diagnostic laboratory where it may take days to analyze the samples and disseminate test results.

Greater awareness of the health status of livestock at neighboring farms would change the way veterinarians operate in these scenarios. What seems like a series of unremarkable findings to a single veterinarian may have greater significance when associated with reports from other veterinarians nearby. With this expanded clinical picture, veterinarians may be able to determine whether the symptoms of concern are isolated or widespread and alter their diagnosis accordingly. Unfortunately, veterinarians often have limited access to information about animal health in their region due to lack of connectivity with other veterinarians. Combined with slow test results, this lack of information sharing can delay the detection of a disease outbreak, thereby affecting producers, international trade, and business continuity across the country.

To address this issue, researchers at the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD Center) are working with veterinarians, federal and state animal health officials, and industry partners to improve real-time situational awareness of animal diseases. The FAZD Center’s primary mission is to develop solutions to support the needs of these stakeholders and help protect the agriculture economy, food supply, and public health. With funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the FAZD Center collaborated with these key end users to design, develop, and pilot the Enhanced Passive Surveillance (EPS) system. EPS builds upon an information-sharing framework developed with funding from the S&T Office of University Programs (OUP). This framework is designed to leverage mobile technologies for information collection that can aid in the early detection of disease outbreaks or changes in the health status of the U.S. livestock and poultry populations. By integrating and aggregating the data, decision-makers, veterinarians, and producers can more easily access and visualize animal health data from multiple sources within a common integrated picture.

The EPS system uses mobile applications, or apps, to capture information on both healthy and sick animals in real time. Veterinarians can document the number of animals observed or examined, describe clinical signs or symptoms that match certain endemic and high consequence diseases, and provide specific geographic locations—all while performing examinations and treating animals. The system automatically uploads and organizes information into an easy-to-use computer display and integrates it with data from veterinary diagnostic laboratories, wildlife biologists, and livestock markets. Once anonymized, data can be shared between veterinarians, state officials, and federal government agencies based on established data sharing protocols that safeguard privacy.

The system marks the first time that veterinarians are able to share animal health information with each other in real time. In the past, a veterinarian would not be aware of what other veterinarians nearby were seeing unless they had established communication networks or received notices from animal health agencies. If a veterinarian witnessed an animal with an atypical clinical presentation, he or she may believe it to be an isolated case. Using EPS, the veterinarian now has access to a much larger and broader set of data from other reporting veterinarians in his or her state, expanding his or her clinical picture. Reviewing these data, the veterinarian may now recognize that there are similar cases throughout the region and question whether a more serious infectious agent is the cause. This may result in an altered treatment regimen or submission of additional samples to the diagnostic laboratory for more in-depth testing, and the ability for other veterinarians to put in place appropriate mitigation strategies.  

The EPS system is also designed to help during large-scale animal disease outbreaks. EPS provides emergency managers, state animal health officials, and veterinarians with timely surveillance information, allowing them to respond to situations as they develop. In addition, because the system documents healthy animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can identify geographic areas that are free from disease during an outbreak. This information can help alleviate fears and demonstrate the nation’s livestock are safe investments to U.S. trading partners.

Tammy R. Beckham, DVM, Ph.D., and FAZD Center director explains, “The EPS system is a unique tool that supports a near real-time analysis of animal health data. In addition, it provides the ability for state and federal animal health officials to monitor the status of livestock nationwide. Just as importantly, EPS benefits the veterinarians themselves by providing greater situational awareness of regional diseases that may affect their herds. By enabling veterinarians to access and analyze a wider set of data, and customizing the technology to meet their needs, we’ve found they are more motivated to use the tool on a day-to-day basis.”

During an initial proof-of-concept pilot, the FAZD Center equipped veterinarians in Texas and New Mexico with tablets containing the EPS surveillance app and cellular data access so they could submit reports directly from the field. Over the course of nine months, veterinarians logged more than 8,330 surveillance reports representing the health status of 676,576 animals. The pilot project was such a success that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) funded a second, expanded pilot to bring on additional industries and incorporate feedback for diagnostic test results. The DHS Office of Health Affairs (OHA) is supporting the ongoing pilot. While the original proof-of-concept pilot focused on cattle, sheep, and goats, the FAZD Center worked with users to develop two new EPS surveillance apps for the second pilot that targeted the poultry and equine industries. The second pilot also expanded geographically to include veterinarians in Colorado.

Participating veterinarians credit the mobile technology and apps, which were developed with their feedback, as a key contributor to the success of the program. Throughout the pilots, the FAZD Center also encouraged participants to provide feedback so they could enhance the system’s features and capabilities. As a result, the apps are easy to use in the field and collect information that is of interest to both veterinarians and animal health officials. One of the greatest advantages of EPS is that veterinarians can collect and submit data, even if they don’t have immediate access to the Internet. Information is saved and automatically submitted when the user establishes an Internet connection, so veterinarians don’t have to worry about losing data or having to submit the report after returning to the office. For those working in remote areas, this is a key feature and just one example of how the FAZD Center has prioritized the user’s needs to create a system that is appealing, practical, and convenient.

DHS S&T Agriculture Defense Branch Chief Michelle Colby, DVM, also points to the importance of partnerships in developing EPS. “The EPS proof-of-concept pilot succeeded because so many parties came to the table to collaborate,” she explained. “Because we were able to see concrete results in such a short time frame, we were able to expand the project.”

In September 2013, S&T awarded $2 million in federal funds, with the potential for a total of nearly $9 million investment over the next three years, to support an expanded pilot across at least 15 states. Building on the initial work and success, the FAZD Center will continue to develop the EPS suite of tools to house seven apps that address all major animal industries  and wildlife. The expanded effort will also increase the system’s user base, adding producers (agriculture company veterinarians and production managers) and wildlife sources (wildlife biologists and organizations).

The main goal of the expanded pilot is to enhance the system and situational awareness of animal health across the United States by providing food animal producers and veterinarians with the means to track and defend against disease outbreaks. The system promotes collaborative information-sharing of anonymized data between private practitioners, states, and the federal government. The FAZD Center also aims to develop a sustainable system that is nationally accepted and supports the agriculture industry, aids business continuity, and boosts the economy. “Ultimately, this project will demonstrate the power of data integration and aggregation,” said Beckham. “Through the EPS technology and working closely with our federal partners, the U.S. will have a low-cost tool that will allow them to have real-time situational awareness and ultimately defend our food supply from disease outbreaks.”

For more information on the Enhanced Passive Surveillance technology, visit http://eps.tamu.edu.

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

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