A couple weeks ago, I had a great opportunity to visit South Korea and meet with veterinarians across their country. We spent time with some of the principal national officials who had been immersed in their country's largest animal health emergency in history, the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2010.
It was a great trip that forged new professional relationships with our counterparts in Korea, who were extremely hospitable hosts.
Thirteen hours on a plane gives one plenty of time to think, and I couldn't help but ponder the plight of the Koreans as they battled their huge FMD outbreak. I heard gut-wrenching stories from the people called out to advise pig farmers that their livelihood would be destroyed in a matter of minutes. I wondered what would happen if FMD somehow came into the U.S.
Flying back from another country offers an opportunity to witness some of our efforts to keep diseases like FMD out of our animals. It starts when you fill out the sheet that asks whether you have been on a farm. As it turns out, we hadn't visited any farms, but we did drive through areas that were severely affected by FMD. We saw plenty of cattle farms interspersed between the urban areas, but no swine farms (South Korea ended up depopulating about a third of its pig population).
If you tell the border protection people you've been on a farm, they ask you a few more questions, but often that's all. FMD virus can survive up to two months in cattle manure. Could an uninformed visitor getting off a plane in the U.S. still have some Korean pig manure on their shoes if they had recently walked through a farm?
Last year, 59.7 million international visitors came to the U.S. Granted, the vast majority of these people will never encounter a cow or a pig in the US. But I bet at least a few of them will. And lest we think all those people are going to New York City or the Grand Canyon, 1.1 million of those arrivals were at the Minneapolis airport.
Then you go to pick up your bags. It's been said that the next foreign animal disease outbreak might not occur maliciously, but rather from a well-intentioned grandmother carrying some sandwich meat from her trip abroad. It's possible. Many foreign animal pathogens can survive in meat for long periods of time. Every year tons of food are confiscated from international travelers entering the US, but realistically, not all of it is detected. But this time I did not encounter any of the beagle brigade, the food-sniffing dogs that ferret out luggage with food products.
Admittedly, I have never gotten really excited about agrosecurity issues. I've thought the risks to be too remote, that I should spend time on things like calf scours and rabies that affect our animals every day. But this trip abroad and consideration of the sheer number of international visitors to the U.S. make me reconsider that.
Flying back home, I read The Great Deluge, a book about Hurricane Katrina that details the failures -as well as the seeming apathy - of our emergency management system when victims of that natural disaster were in dire need of help. Would our government's response to an FMD outbreak be different from that debacle?
A clear lesson from the book was that the efforts of everyday people often surpassed the ability of the government to respond. To some degree, the same might be said for prevention of foreign animal diseases.
But what can you do? Be aware of foreign animal disease. Call your vet if there's something strange going on with your animals. When you visit farms or animals abroad, take extra precautions. Don't bring your coveralls and shoes home. Stay away from any livestock for a minimum of five days after you get back. Know what food items you are allowed to bring back. Quiz international visitors to your farm about their previous animal contact.
I'd like to think the likelihood of diseases like FMD affecting our country are remote at best. But they are out there. And the stakes are too high to just ignore the threat.