Peparing for High Consequence Diseases

April 2019

By Yvonne Nadler and Ashley Zielinski

Secure Zoo Strategy

While it is highly concerning for animal care teams to find an infectious disease of any type within their collections, the detection of some disease agents have greater consequences than others. 

Foreign Animal Diseases (FADs) are diseases which are not normally found in the United States and are often considered “high consequence” due to the severe threat they pose to animal health, and their potential impact on state and national economies. The detection of a FAD such as highly pathogenic avian influenza, African swine fever, or foot-and-mouth disease threatens agricultural trade agreements, and costs millions of tax dollars to mitigate. As such, the detection of such an agent would prompt an extensive response effort by State Animal Health Officials (SAHOs) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to eradicate the disease.

Over the last four years, the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response, and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center has worked with state and federal partners,  as well as representatives from our community to consider how FADs would impact our collections and business operations. While news coverage of FADs typically focuses on agriculture, many of these diseases can affect species in zoological collections as well and detection within your facility, or even nearby, would begin a chain of events that affects virtually every aspect of your operation.

Why Worry About FADs?

One only needs to recall the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak of 2014-2015, when several strains emerged in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, to understand FAD concerns of our community.   Though this outbreak was primarily confined to poultry operations, valuable falcons were accidentally infected when they were fed frozen, hunter harvested waterfowl which were reservoirs of the disease.  Since many exhibits are outdoors and often visited by wild waterfowl, many facilities invested significant time and resources to discourage wild waterfowl from entering exhibit space.  Facilities in closer proximity to infected poultry farms implemented more drastic measures including physically remodeling enclosures, and keeping birds indoors long after they would have been put out on exhibit in the spring.  This naturally was not ideal for the birds, and caused concerns among animal care staff about the welfare and health effects of prolonged holding indoors.

Since the susceptibility of the myriad of species in our collections is largely unknown, these influenza viruses were a menacing foe.  If it was spreading so rapidly among poultry facilities, which are supposedly biosecure, how could we possibly avoid infection in open air exhibits? Since the strategy for infected poultry farms was depopulation, strict movement controls, and other measures to try and control the outbreak, what would that mean to ‘us’ if a zoo became infected? Fortunately for us, the prevalence of these particular HPAI strains in wild waterfowl ended up being extremely low, but what happens next time when we as a community aren’t so lucky and the disease agent spreads easily and rapidly?

How Should We Prepare for High Consequence Diseases?

It is incredibly important to understand that the strategies and tactics implemented by SAHOs and USDA to control FADs are directed towards stopping the spread of the disease agent and returning to the most favorable agricultural trade status as soon as possible.  In recent cases, this has meant depopulation of millions of poultry on infected farms.  Of course, such action would be devastating if applied to one of our facilities.  The exotic animal community needs a better understanding of the process of FAD management from the perspective of the SAHOs and USDA veterinarians that would be responsible for controlling these disease agents should they emerge in a zoological collection. The ZAHP Fusion Center brought in Dr. Jimmy Tickel, a veterinarian at the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD) and former veterinarian for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture Emergency Programs, to guide the development of a Secure Zoo Strategy.   

Why Secure Zoo?  

Secure Zoo Strategy was developed by the Fusion Center, with input from multiple animal managers and disease experts, but the initial idea came from Dr. Tickel himself.

“My interactions with a facility—Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park—was a big impetus for this effort,” said Tickel. “While presenting our efforts at a meeting (in March 2014) in Washington D.C., I shared that the exotic animal industry needed to join the effort of the food animal production industries and develop a ‘Secure Zoo’ platform to present their specific challenges to USDA and State Animal Health Officials.”

Dr. Tickel recognized that facilities housing exotics had been largely ignored in State planning efforts despite having needs very different than the agricultural facilities that may be impacted.

“Historically, regulatory programs were naturally developed to reflect eradication goals for disease outbreaks,” said Tickel. “Individual farms could be ‘sacrificed’ to stop a disease outbreak.  For facilities with wild animals this approach could have some unintended consequences, understanding that facilities could have collections that are endangered. Having a Secure Zoo Strategy to present a forum to address the unique challenges to the community encountered during FAD outbreaks is incredibly important.”

Thus, the project was born.

What is the Secure Zoo Strategy?

Secure Zoo Strategy guides facilities through development of a plan to manage the threat of high consequence diseases, using foot and mouth disease, one of the most contagious and concerning animal diseases on the planet, as an example. Secure Zoo Strategy leverages some of the great work done by the Secure Food Supply plans, which are directed toward the poultry, dairy, beef, and swine industries, and uses much of the same terminology and strategies outlined therein.  The over-arching goal of all ‘Secure’ programs, including Secure Zoo, is business continuity.

The program is designed to help exotic exhibitors achieve a baseline understanding of the response to FADs and provide a platform to begin discussions with SAHOs. The process also provides information on what may happen to your facility if a foreign animal disease is detected in your collection, or you find yourself within a mandatory control zone with movement restrictions, suspension of visitation, and other business interruptions.  

In each of the ten steps of Secure Zoo Strategy facilities will learn about an important aspect of planning for FADs such as identifying planning partners needed for robust plan development, the importance of describing business model and economic value, and how to incorporate key biosecurity concepts to become more resilient to disease threats; an accompanying mapping tool provides a visual approach to creating a more disease resilient facility.  Steps also discuss the challenges of managing communications and media, considerations for utilizing your own staff in disease response, and some basic information on recovering from a catastrophic disease event.

The Benefit of Secure Zoo

Unlike agricultural species, our business models center on conservation, visitation, and movement of animals for exhibition or breeding.  The return to normal business operations has very different challenges.   A depopulation strategy which is used in food producing species could devastate collections; our species are not as easily replaced as domestic species, valuable genetics could be lost, and there would likely be a public outcry in response.  Facility closure is a very likely consequence of FAD detection, but for facilities that rely on visitation as a primary source of revenue even a short-term closure would have a lasting impact.  Movement is generally halted after immediate disease detection, but as we learned in the recent virulent Newcastle Disease outbreak in southern California, movement restrictions can be in place for months or years as the outbreak is contained.  What would the implications be for facilities unable to move animals for exhibition or breeding purposes over a prolonged period? Do SAHOs understand the lasting implications a FAD response could have on a zoological facility?

A key centerpiece of preparation is to form relationships with those leading the response efforts, and to work through the best path to be taken that benefits all involved.  It is critical for facilities to get involved in building these key relationships to build response plans before the outbreak,” said Tickel. “The challenges that you face are not only unique, but also quite complicated and require additional planning and preparation. Zoological facilties need to understand fully what they are up against not only from the disease itself but also what impacts can come their way from response plans that were initially developed to protect food animal production industries.”

The greatest value in working through the Secure Zoo steps is the increased understanding of actions that can be taken to avoid infection. By approaching your state veterinarian for planning assistance, and sharing with them your unique business model, novel approaches to disease management can be discussed before an outbreak, when they have time to assist you. During a disease event, their time will be extremely limited to help you build a plan from scratch.

Yvonne Nadler, DVM, MPH, is the ZAHP Fusion Center program manager.

Ashley Zielinski is the ZAHP Fusion Center program coordinator.


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