What if?

The global state of animal health is continuously changing and we must always be preparing to face a new challenge or embrace an opportunity. Explore these eight scenarios and consider how they could transform animal health, for better or for worse.

    In June 2016, philanthropist Bill Gates launched a campaign to help poor families in sub-Saharan Africa by giving them vaccinated chickens. He says raising and selling the vaccinated birds can tackle poverty and help rural families raise improved breeds of chickens, protected from disease. A farmer breeding five hens could earn more than US$1,000 a year, and with nearly 400 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa living on less than US$700 a year, this would be life changing .

    Three quarters of all emerging infectious diseases originate from animals. If every animal was vaccinated, we’d greatly reduce the exposure of both human and animal populations to catastrophic – yet entirely preventable – diseases.

    We have successfully eradicated deadly diseases like rinderpest through vaccination and are fighting to do the same with rabies and Peste de Petite Ruminant (PPR). With 60,000 people still dying each year from rabies, a successful global vaccination program would be life-changing for countless families and communities.

    Antibiotics are an indispensable tool in the veterinarian’s toolkit in controlling disease. Animals that are sick have the right to be treated and, without antibiotics, many of the world’s animals would experience unnecessary suffering or death.

    At present, 20% of livestock is lost through disease. For farmers in places like East Africa, Latin America and South Asia, losing just one animal hurts the food security, nutrition and growth of their community. If antibiotics were no longer a tool farmers and veterinarians could rely upon, these rural communities would pay the price.

    Antibiotics should always be used responsibly, by order of a veterinarian, and only when necessary. They are powerful tools. Their benefits need to be preserved for future generations. By themselves, antibiotics are not a one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with health problems in animals and humans, but there will always be a need for them.

    Foot and mouth disease is highly contagious and the actions of a single farmer can affect thousands of animals. The global annual cost of the disease to livestock production is estimated as high as $21 billion. However, these numbers would skyrocket following an outbreak in the US. With cattle highly concentrated in a small number of states (57 per cent in just 10 states), the disease would spread extremely quickly and the results would be catastrophic.

    The cost of such an outbreak in the US, which exports around $6bn of beef around the world, would be enormous, as farmers’ livelihoods would be decimated, along with others in the supply chain. What’s more, other animals in the wider ecosystem would need to be slaughtered to prevent further spread (including deer, boar, etc.). Beef shortages would send domestic prices skyward, making the classic American hamburger a luxury item.

    The deadly H5N1 strain is highly transmissible and devastates poultry populations. An outbreak in the US in 2015 saw the destruction of 49.5 million chickens and turkeys and costs of more than $3.3bn. Accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the world’s egg production, poultry in Asia is an essential source of protein for a rapidly growing population.

    The spread of avian influenza would obliterate this crucial source of food and the continent’s poorest communities would be hardest hit. Animals would be culled with little chance of compensation, while their ability to feed their family and community would become even more challenging. For bigger producers, trade would grind to a standstill as the international community took steps to prevent the movement of poultry.

    In the battle to ensure greater food security worldwide, aquaculture has been an especially helpful tool. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, global fish production is currently outpacing world population growth and helping to feed our expanding world.

    However, the threat of disease has grown at an equal pace. Salmon have become increasingly susceptible to sea lice, tiny crustaceans that latch on and eat the salmon flesh. Juvenile salmon are considered especially vulnerable.

    Without proper treatments for salmon farmers, they will switch to labor-intensive, costly measures like freshwater baths to eliminate the threat. Prices will quickly rise and this heart-healthy protein may suddenly be a luxury good for most.

    We’re all too familiar with the impact of disease outbreaks in livestock populations. But what if there were a new disease amongst our beloved pets? This is just what happened in the 1970s in Europe and North America when canine parvovirus type 2 (commonly known as ‘parvo’) emerged in dogs.

    By 1978, the virus had spread unchecked. Dogs experienced lethargy, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. Thousands of dogs died and countless families affected before a vaccine was developed. A similar outbreak today would be incredibly harmful for dogs and their owners across the world, and the growing number of dogs in the developing world could facilitate an even more rapid spread of a fatal disease.

    There is a history of swine diseases that spread rapidly and unexpectedly. For example, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) appeared in the late 1980’s and is now considered endemic in most pig populations. Porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus (PEDV) was diagnosed for the first time in the United States in 2013 and killed 10% of swine populations in 2014/15.

    African Swine Fever (ASF) is a haemorrhagic fever of pigs and wild boar that causes massive mortality. It has spread from Africa through the Caucasus and Russia into Europe and is creeping westward. It can spread very rapidly in pig populations by direct or indirect contact. What would happen if these diseases, or new variations of the diseases, entered the intensive western European pork production sector on a very large scale? Authorities are already investing millions to prevent this, recognizing the economic costs of an outbreak would be staggering.