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Hard-fought victories against animal diseases.

The battles are not written up in history books or studied by legions of schoolchildren; monuments to the heroes are scarce. But the impact of the fight against animal disease echoes every day in the quality and quantity of foods available to consumers worldwide.

In March 1884, reports of foot-and-mouth disease in neighborhood cattle herds were enough to stir near hysteria in Coffey County, Kansas. Today, foot-and-mouth disease is only a memory in the United States, vanished from this country since 1929.

Foot-and-mouth disease is just one of at least a dozen major livestock diseases eradicated in the United States through the efforts of several USDA agencies, including the Agricultural Research Service which was created following the dissolution of the old Bureau of Animal Industry.

Perhaps ironically in light of the efforts that followed, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was established in 1862, no provision was made for work on either animal husbandry or veterinary medicine.

It was not until May 29, 1884, that President Chester A. Arthur signed the act establishing the Bureau of Animal Industry within USDA. Feelings may have been ambivalent about the new bureau; while the act establishing it included an appropriation of $150,000, the bureau at first was specifically limited to only 20 employees.

That rule eventually fell by the wayside, and the BAI evolved and expanded along with animal health concerns. Sweeping changes within USDA in 1953 saw the department's scientific bureaus, including BAI and the Bureau of Dairy Industry, abolished and their functions transferred to the then-new Agricultural Research Service.

ARS has been an important ally of the American farmer and consumer in combating animal disease. In the case of foot-and-mouth disease, which still threatens to re-enter the country from abroad, ARS' Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York has played a part in the search for better protection against this dreaded attacker.

Researchers at Plum Island, working with scientists from the animal health industry, have developed technology that may someday lead to a more effective vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease.

Hog cholera, a bane to American farmers since its appearance in the Ohio Valley in the 1830's, today represents another animal health success story with a strong ARS connection.

Within a half century of its U.S. debut, hog cholera had spread to at least 35 states; a single Indiana company lost 11,000 hogs in the fall of 1896.

Scientists at ARS' National Animal Disease Center at Ames, Iowa, did their part to help drive out hog cholera by refining new, rapid laboratory tests for diagnosis, in part so that the tests could be practically applied in a field program.

The tests, based on examination of tissue from animals' tonsils, were judged up to 90 percent effective. Additional refinements to these tests made it possible to pinpoint obscure outbreaks of infection that might otherwise have gone undetected.

Screwworms were a plague on the cattle industry of the South and Southwest until an ARS entomologist devised a new way to control the devastating pests.

The plan was to rear screwworms in large numbers, sterilize them, and release them in infested areas to mate with normal insects. Since no offspring would result from such matings, it was hoped that the pest would, in effect, breed itself out of existence.

The theory was tested on the island of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela; within 6 months, screwworms had vanished from the island. Subsequent application of the same technique on a massive scale led to the total eradication of this pest from the United States.

Poultry farmers have ARS researchers to thank for the vaccine now used against Marek's disease, at one time a major cause of deaths of birds and condemnation for tumors by USDA inspectors at slaughterhouses.

English researchers in 1967 reported the isolation of the causative agent of Marek's disease, a herpes virus. The causative agent was also discovered that same year at an East Lansing, Michigan, laboratory established by the BAI in the 1930's but now operated by ARS.

The East Lansing scientists found a herpes virus in turkeys that would not kill chickens but was closely related to the Marek's disease virus. From that, they developed a vaccine that today protects poultry around the world.

Producers are not the only ones to benefit from such research. The benefit-cost index of the Marek's disease vaccine to the production of human food was estimated in the mid-1980's at 44.3, meaning that a dollar spent on research would return an average of $44.30 in economic benefits through such avenues as decreased costs of production of poultry meat and eggs.

It should also be noted that Marek's disease was the first cancer shown to be cause by a herpes virus and the first such condition of any animal to be controlled by a commercially applicable vaccine. A former director of the National Cancer Institute called the findings "one of the single most important developments in cancer research within the past 10 years."

So despite whatever unspoken fears may have lurked when the Bureau of Animal Industry was originally limited to a staff of 20, that initial appropriation of $150,000 has proven to be a wise and highly rewarding investment in the health and well-being of Americans both urban and rural.

Sandy Miller Hays Information Staff Agricultural Research Service
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Title Annotation:by the Agricultural Research Service and related agencies
Author:Hays, Sandra Miller
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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