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Animal research critical in responding to infectious disease

Posted July 28, 2010

— The animals at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine go about their day while researchers keep watch for what could be coming.

"We know it will happen again. It could be happening right now," said Dr. Barrett Slenning, a veterinarian and associate professor.

Slenning is referring to the next wave of influenza.

"We share much of the same metabolism. We share much of the same food and water. We share the same environment, so it's not surprising that we share the same kinds of disease agents," he said.

About 75 percent of all new infectious diseases in humans, such as the H1N1 flu pandemic last year, originate in animals. Initially called swine flu, H1N1 was linked to pigs.

Most of the flu strains are spread by water birds, such as ducks and geese.

They are what Slenning calls "silent carriers," because the birds are not sick themselves.

"In essence, all influenzas are avian influenzas," he said. "But they have jumped species over the last several hundred years. They've gotten into pigs, they've gotten into people."

Slenning is also one of the leading experts in the state on preparing for the next wave of disease.

His research is crucial to public health officials needing to prepare.

"We want to make every part of our response stronger. The partnerships are critical," said Megan Davies with the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

The state has a plan to deal with public health threats. It includes distributing vaccines, getting real-time information from hospitals and doctors offices regarding symptoms of sick patients and educating people on ways to prevent the flu, such as hand washing hands and coughing into a shirt sleeve.

But with H1N1 last year, there was little time to prepare any further.

In a normal season, flu strains can be tracked as they move across the globe, but H1N1 suddenly appeared in North America.

"I think one thing we've learned is the next big epidemic isn't necessarily going to come the way you thought it was going to come," Davies said.

Cattle Animal research critical for disease control

"Where we were fortunate was that the actual severity of (H1N1) was not as bad as it could have been," she added. "The lines weren't fun, but the people in those lines got vaccinated, and we actually were able to prevent a serious third wave of illness."

Still, 109 people in North Carolina died last year from H1N1.

It's not that humans can get sick from such diseases from touching an animal – in fact, experts say the likelihood is greater that humans can spread disease to animals.

That's why the state is also concerned about their health.

For example, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took extra measures last year to not only protect the wellbeing of fairgoers, but also the animals on exhibit.

Hand-washing stations were set up around the fairground and extra spacing was added between animal exhibits and the public.

At N.C. State, newborn calves, for example, are also kept in separate pens away from people and even each other.

"What we do is we protect them. We protect our environment and by doing that, we protect ourselves," Slenning said.

Influenzas have been mutating and being shared between species for hundreds of years, so trying to predict what's next, is not easy.

"We will have it happen again, but it's something like saying, 'I know California is going to have a major earthquake at some point,'" Slenning said. "But knowing that it's going to happen without an idea of when, how or where it's going to hit, really doesn't help us in preparedness."

The state also takes measures to prevent a sick animal from entering the food supply. Slenning said every flock of chickens sent to market in North Carolina is sampled for influenza. Before they leave the farm, chickens are subject to several inspections. Once a consumer makes a purchase, Slenning said, proper cooking can destroy any disease agents that are present.

10 Comments

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  • serat Jul 29, 7:48 p.m.

    The video of the broadcast is now online...it wasn't when I originally posted yesterday. So, you can see the calf in the small enclosure, alone with no enrichment, for yourself. It is towards the end of the video.

  • serat Jul 29, 7:43 p.m.

    I actually saw this news story on the 6pm broadcast and there was video which clearly showed a calf alone in a small enclosure with no mother and no enrichment. With regard to the other comments of how humans exploit animals, I can best respond by quoting Alice Walker "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women for men." Just because humans have exploited animals since the beginning of time does not make it right. Rape has also existed since the beginning of time...that does not make it right. In 2010 it is past time that we stop being so selfish to other living, breathing, thinking beings who have a right to live their lives without the outside negative influence of humans. Animals should not be used for food, entertainment, research, or clothing. When this day comes we will all be able to live in peace and harmony with fellow humans and fellow animals.

  • mpheels Jul 29, 9:38 a.m.

    The article doesn't make it clear, but I'm pretty sure the calves AND mothers are separated from other cattle. In other words, the calf stays with the cow, but neither one has contact with other animals and human contact is limited.

    As for human use of animals - Humans and animals co-evolved such that some animals become food, some help with work, and some are companions. Most species and breeds of domestic animals wouldn't even exist if it weren't for their value to humans. But, if we allow allow to live in squalor before we get around to eating them, then we get sick. The now routine e-coli outbreaks and food recalls are a direct result of treating animals poorly. It's absolutely worth it to take good care of livestock, pets, and working animals.

  • research9 Jul 29, 9:32 a.m.

    serat - so keeping the newborn around sick animals and humans so it has the potential to get disease, is better than keeping it isolated and healthy? Riiiight. The article does not state that newborns are kept away from their mothers - only people and other cows. I doubt that researchers would separate mother and baby, because the separation would require MORE human contact, which is exactly what they are trying to cut down on.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT Jul 29, 8:36 a.m.

    mep: "THAT's what animals are for... eating and making humans lives better."

    Well said. Brief, to the point, and 100% correct. We use small animals for entertainment, or to sometimes keep away other pesky animals. We use large animals to help us accomplish tasks, like pulling heavy objects or carrying us around. And, of course, ALL animals taste good if cooked right.

  • lrfarms27572 Jul 29, 8:12 a.m.

    "At N.C. State, newborn calves, for example, are also kept in separate pens away from people and even each other... - serat

    I doubt you're speaking form experience...

  • mep Jul 29, 8:10 a.m.

    THAT's what animals are for... eating and making humans lives better.

  • ORMA Jul 28, 7:33 p.m.

    ALL calves are removed from the cows at some point. It is called weaning. It happens with ALL animals including humans.

  • serat Jul 28, 7:23 p.m.

    "At N.C. State, newborn calves, for example, are also kept in separate pens away from people and even each other". That means that the mothers are grieving horribly and the calves' most basic needs are not being met. I am shocked that NC Sate would do this as knowledgeable as they are about the welfare of animals. If you cannot do the research such that animals are allowed to live lives without being subjected to suffering (which includes being separated from mother) then the research cannot be justified, regardless of the outcome of the research.

  • allie19 Jul 28, 6:37 p.m.

    Hey we even immunize our animals and not our kids!! Good for animal rights people!