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Sandia, Kansas State University developing rapid disease detection system for farm animals

Sandia, Kansas State University developing rapid disease detection system for farm animals

As Mike Whitehair quietly moves through the pen of cattle, something captures his attention. The Abilene, Kan., veterinarian pauses, pulls out a cell phone and punches in a code — not to make a call — but to start through a series of questions on the tiny screen regarding clinical signs he may be seeing in the cattle and illnesses they could represent.

Such is the vision of the Rapid Syndrome Validation Project for Animals (RSVP-A) being developed jointly by Sandia and Kansas State University.

"This joint effort offers a unique opportunity which builds on the strengths of both institutions: the agricultural expertise and experience of Kansas State and the security and systems engineering capabilities of Sandia," says Cecelia Williams (6245), Sandia researcher.

The project is an Internet-based system for rapid detection and reporting of infectious disease outbreaks in cattle.

Susan Caskey (5324), the Sandia RSVP project lead, says, "With the success of RSVP within the human population, it seemed the ideal model to use for monitoring animals. With the help of K-State, RSVP-A was created using the models developed within the human system."

Whitehair, co-owner of the Abilene Veterinary Hospital, is helping K-State veterinarians test the initial version of the project in a private practice setting.

"The need to be able to quickly recognize disease symptoms — whether introduced naturally, accidentally, or by humans intent on havoc — has never been more important," says K-State research veterinarian and project leader Mark Spire. At stake is a multibillion-dollar industry in Kansas that is the leading agricultural income generator, he said.

Kansas was home to 6.35 million head of cattle during 2001, according to data kept by the US Department of Agriculture. The state annually ranks at or near the top in cattle feeding and beef processing.

"As a result, Kansas imports more than 4 million head of cattle for grazing and feeding purposes and nearly 2 million for slaughter," Spire says. "As a net importer of livestock, this large movement of cattle from every region of the country into Kansas has the potential to introduce diseases not native to this area. Plus, the risk of introducing pathogens is significantly increased by the movement of workers, vehicles, and visitors to and from cattle operations every day. And since most of the animals are concentrated in large facilities, the high density in small areas heightens the risk of catastrophic economic losses resulting from acts of agroterrorism or from naturally introduced diseases."

The RSVP-A system will help scientists and agencies determine, down to the county, where clusters of animals are showing similar, but unusual symptoms. However, cattle owner anonymity is built into the program, says Whitehair. The project, modeled after Sandia’s RSVP-H software for humans and funded by Homeland Security funds through the USDA and ultimately the Kansas Animal Health Department, has been in development for 1-1/2 years and in the testing phase a few months.

Although the system initially focused on cattle, it may be extended to other species, says Brad DeGroot, veterinary epidemiologist with K-State’s Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology, who is also working on the project.

The RSVP-A project may be the tool to fill a gap in this country’s livestock disease diagnostic systems, says Kevin Varner, Topeka, Kan.-based veterinarian-in-charge with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

"We have an excellent system for finding diseases that we expect to find — diseases that we already know about," says Varner, citing brucellosis, pseudorabies and tuberculosis. "We’ve historically not done a good job of quickly detecting emerging diseases in this country."

The initial test phase, which began earlier this year, will last two years, Varner says. At the end of that time, if the system still looks feasible, the testing could either be extended or the program could be launched nationally.

"The focus is to capture data at the point of activity when the practitioner is in the field, so we’re not asking him or her to remember to do a report when they get back to the office," DeGroot says.

The project, if successful, will give veterinarians a way to pool their observations so that they can spot a potential looming crisis in advance, DeGroot says. Veterinarians look at client cattle every day to determine why they are sick or not performing well. They examine lamenesses, skin and mucosal lesions, birth defects, diarrhea, central nervous system problems, deaths, and various other maladies in the course of their daily work. The RSVP-A system takes the information they gather beyond the individual farm or veterinary clinic and into a central databank.

Using the handheld devices may seem foreign to some veterinarians at first, but the fact that each unit is a working cell phone and personal organizer should help practitioners adapt. Plus, once a veterinarian is familiar with the software, it takes less than a minute to enter the data if he or she sees unusual symptoms, DeGroot says.

"The only way to prepare for the unknown is to practice," said Whitehair.

Eventually, the technology may allow for transmission of photos of the clinical signs in question.

The system’s initial testing is being done in the five-county area that Whitehair’s practice covers — home to about 225,000 head of cattle. That phase, begun in the spring, is expected to continue for about a year, through typically busy and quiet times on cattle operations.

This month the testing will be expanded to 15 collaborating veterinarians.