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Biosecurity: Where West Nile started

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Oct 01, 2010


Funding is failing: Tracey McNamara, DVM, Dipl. ACVP, says pathogen discovery is falling behind because no one's responsible for paying for testing of wildlife.
The slogans "One World" and "One Health" just don't match reality on the ground, according to Dr. Tracey S. McNamara, Dipl. ACVP, who updated the audience on the state of cooperation in human and veterinary medicine today, more than 10 years after she helped uncover the West Nile Virus outbreak in New York State.

"First, there's human health," says McNamara, pointing to a giant pie in a diagram indicating funds spent on disease discovery. McNamara's circles became increasingly smaller as she went down the line. "Then money goes into agriculture. Study of pathogens in wildlife and pets is just this little dot," she said.

"We just don't do enough pathogen discovery in wildlife," she says. "Many animals aren't anyone's responsibility to test and pay for that testing."

When McNamara was working as head of pathology at the Bronx Zoo in 1999, she saw local crows as well as the zoo's snowy owls, bald eagles, flamingos, and other birds suddenly sicken and die. Autopsies revealed lesions on the brain indicative of diseases that hadn't been seen yet in the Western Hemisphere.

New Yorkers were getting sick, but public health officials didn't put two and two together, she says. Months and months later, after McNamara had pursued her own chain of help through veterinary labs and the U.S. Army, the world finally started to listen to advice coming from zoos about the emergence of the disease.

Today, McNamara says the system for discovering emerging zoonotic diseases has a long way to go. "We have 18 state wildlife veterinarians and a few dozen federal veterinarians," she said. "We need 90 to 100, and at least one state wildlife veterinarian per state. And we need the funding to support their work."

In addition to funding and veterinarian staff, McNamara says the United States needs better reporting across species for disease and better licensing for state and local wildlife staff who handle pathology work. McNamara says there is at least one agency interested in strong animal and human health disease surveillance: the Department of Defense.

"They have spent $750 million in Russia to integrate human and animal health surveillance," McNamara says. "Why aren't we doing the same thing here?"