Media blitz likened to 'pressure cooker'
Dr. Bill Wavrin was thrust into the media spotlight in ways he probably never expected.
On Dec. 23, the news broke internationally that a 4.5-year-old Holstein tested positive for the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the United States. Wavrin owned the Canadian-born Holstein and the Sunny Dene Ranch on the outskirts of Mabton, Wash., a small farming community of about 2,000 people. The estimated $3 million-grossing ranch had 18 employees according to Dunn and Bradstreet.
Wavrin did not return telephone calls seeking comment from DVM Newsmagazine.
It happened to Wavrin and his one Holstein, and the result rocked the cattle markets and blocked international agriculture.
The animal was purchased in Oct. 2001 and added to the 4,000-animal herd. The cow was culled in early December after sustaining injury from calving. It was approved for slaughter based on a lack of evidence of injury or disease beyond the calving-related paralysis. Brain, spinal cord and other related tissues were taken as part of USDA's BSE surveillance program. The rest is history.
Since the story broke, Wavrin's friends have come to his aid.
Charlie Powell, a communications officer with Washington State University's veterinary college, says that both Wavrin and his dairy are held in high esteem by the college.
"We have actually taken some of our veterinary student to see it and how it is operated. We know Dr. Wavrin maintains impeccable records which is why the tracebacks and traceforwards have gone so quickly."
Powell adds, "In my speaking with him, he was obviously very concerned and very professional. He epitomized a veterinarian in every sense of the word. I was really quite impressed with his candor and behavior in the midst of such a huge crisis. I am certain he probably felt like he was in an absolute pressure cooker."
Setting the stage The most chaotic part of this breaking media event was in the early stages, Abbott recalls.
"December 23 was a memorable day in the life of Yakima Valley," he says. "We were out in the field just trying to take care of our work. At about 3 p.m., my telephone started ringing." Abbott explains the first calls were from concerned clients who were hearing broadcast reports of the mad cow case.
The media consequently converged on the countryside, looking for the source farm, since USDA refused to release names. One producer even yanked down his signs because erroneous broadcast reports surfaced about his ranch being the source herd.
Abbott explained that for biosecurity reasons, producers did not want all these people on their operations. Reporters took it as a sign they were trying to hide information.
Powell adds that the college during the first week of the case, received about 300 media calls at all hours of the day and night. Dr. Clive Gay, Powell and another communications officer provided background information on BSE to media inquiries.
"This media environment runs 24 hours a day, and that environment has to be fed," Powell explains.
After the initial media thrust, USDA converged on the ranch, closed off the facilities to conduct its investigation. USDA also became the centralized information reporting source for the story.
Powell adds, "The media, as you can imagine breaking next to a holiday, was particularly aggressive, and I mean that in a positive way, in trying to get information about this story. I think that in itself exacerbated the risk in some people's minds. In fact, what the scientists are saying about risk is absolutely negligible. People in the general public misperceive media activity as a reflection of increased risk," Powell says.
"The biggest irony in all of this is the absolute miniscule risk associated with this versus the reaction to it. Veterinarians are remarkable people in establishing and communicating risk to people when it comes to zoonotic diseases and animal health. To contrast this to influenza which is going to kill somewhere around 35,000-40,000 this year, where the human form of this disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) has killed 153 people worldwide, really presents a dichotomy," Powell adds.