What if highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) erupts in U.S. poultry flocks in the fall of 2015? A worst-case scenario would involve HPAI breaking in multiple geographic regions, including major broiler production regions.

Is the U.S. ready to handle such an avian flu disease emergency?

John Clifford, chief veterinary officer of the United States, addressed the question of what support the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) needs to be able to continue to meet future animal disease emergencies.

“We are a very small organization for the mission that we have, which is huge,” he said in response to questioning at the recent USA Poultry & Egg Export Council meeting.

“I am not a lobbyist, and I can’t lobby,” he said, “but APHIS needs more funding and resources. [In the Veterinary Services division] more field people are needed.”

APHIS funding down, disease threats up 

Clifford indicated the Veterinary Services budget has dropped from around $280 million to $240 million, and the number of employees is down from 2,050 to 1,775.

“Of the 1,775 people [in Veterinary Services] there are only about 400 who can be deployed for an animal disease emergency event of the kind experienced this year with the outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza.”

There’s a limit to the human resources that can be pulled from other APHIS responsibilities, he noted, and around 2,500 contract personnel were utilized in the emergency disease control effort.

Don’t skimp on U.S. disease protection

APHIS is the federal government’s thin line of defense against highly pathogenic avian influenza spreading more widely in poultry flocks if the disease returns in migrating wildfowl this fall.

While much of the work of APHIS is constant, like issuing permits or inspecting licensed facilities, the HPAI outbreaks of 2015 revealed the agency’s inestimable value as it threw every available resource into a disease emergency of historic proportions. The problem is that funding for APHIS has been on the decline in recent years and fewer people are available to respond to an animal disease emergency of this scale.

It is of critical importance for the U.S. to increase funding for APHIS now and in future years. The animal disease challenges facing our nation are likely to grow in severity. The consequences of failing to mount an adequate response to any future avian influenza outbreaks could be severe.