Pa., keep investing in animal health system

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A state worker with the Texas Animal Heath Commission at a farm where 24,000 chickens were destroyed after an avian influenza infection was found there in 2004.

Two years ago, Pennsylvania farmers were just beginning to understand the extent of the devastation of America’s worst animal disease outbreak, high pathogenic avian influenza.

In winter and early spring of 2015, the midwestern United States was infected with the disease. By June 2015, more than 49.5 million chickens and turkeys were dead. Nearly 2,000 veterinarians, state and federal regulators, and special contractors were dispatched to help with the control and cleanup. The outbreak cost taxpayers, farmers, businesses, and consumers more than $3.3 billion.

During this troubling time for American agriculture, farmers in Pennsylvania were witnessing an unprecedented response from our legislature, state Department of Agriculture, and partners at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) and Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

The legislature invested more financially on prevention and preparation than the rest of the states combined. An emergency authorization in case of an outbreak also was approved for the Department of Agriculture, totaling about $27 million. Because of the implementation of an aggressive plan led by Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, and supported by veterinarians and animal health professionals at Penn Vet and Penn State, only a fraction of the appropriation needed to be spent.

This proactive approach was a clear sign that no one wanted to relive the sins of our past. In April 1983, Pennsylvania had its first devastating experience with avian influenza. By the time the disease was finally brought under control, 17 million birds died and $60 million was spent on the cleanup. We learned from that outbreak and successfully defended Pennsylvania against subsequent flare-ups of avian influenza that have devastated other states.

Today, Pennsylvania remains one of the largest and most diverse poultry states in America. Because of that diversity we are also one of the most vulnerable to a new outbreak of avian influenza. Yet we have avoided outbreaks for two reasons: planning and resources.

The state legislature has always understood the value of investing in a great animal health system. Its support for the Department of Agriculture, Animal Health Commission, Penn State, and Penn Vet has kept poultry healthy and has saved taxpayers and consumers billions.

Recently, as lawmakers deal with difficult budgetary challenges, questions about the value of the commonwealth’s appropriation to Penn Vet have been raised .

Each year, Penn Vet — Pennsylvania’s only veterinary school — receives about $30 million in state support. What does the commonwealth get in exchange for this investment?

A veterinary school that is considered one of the best in the world.

If we have an outbreak of avian influenza in our chickens, or the pseudo-rabies virus in our hogs, we rely on veterinarians and staff at the Penn Vet diagnostic laboratories to guide our response. When our horses are infected with life-threatening equine herpes virus, the best hope of saving them is Penn Vet. When our cows are having difficulty birthing a new calf or are suffering from an endemic disease like mastitis, it’s a veterinarian likely trained at Penn Vet who we call.

And as all Pennsylvanians who love their pets know, when our family cat or dog is diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, the best care in the world can be found at Penn Vet.

Not only does state funding support animal-health initiatives, but it also enables Penn Vet to provide scholarships for students who commit to practicing in some of the most rural areas of our commonwealth. In fact, some counties have just two or even fewer veterinarians. More often than not, those veterinarians are Penn Vet graduates.

We certainly understand fiscal challenges, but we must remain vigilant. Over the past several weeks, avian influenza has been detected in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky. Needless to say, many farmers and agribusinesses are nervous.

Protecting animal health is a core function of our government. Our commonwealth has been a national leader in that regard, thanks to the efforts of our legislators, whose budgetary support of Penn Vet is one of the best returns on investment in our state budget. Maintaining this investment helps keep poultry, livestock – and humans – healthy.

Christian Herr is the executive vice president of PennAg Industries Association (www.PennAg.com). cherr@pennag.com