An obscure federal agency within the Department of Agriculture that is tasked with responding to widespread animal illnesses like--mad cow disease--doesn’t have a strategy in place to respond if such an outbreak occurs.
That was the alarming conclusion from a new Government Accountability Office report that says the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS is severely understaffed and lacks a “a detailed plan to augment or train its workforce to respond” to a dangerous epidemic.
The GAO said the agency, as well as other components of USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services do not have enough animal doctors employed—there are about 624 at APHIS and 2,000 government wide.
The report said that to respond to a national outbreak, it would likely require an estimated 6,000 veterinarians. The auditors blasted the agency for not vetting its animal doctors and not preparing an emergency animal health plan.
Just last month, the Centers for Disease and Control announced a dangerous potential canine influenza A H3N2 virus that was responsible for an outbreak of dog flu reported in the Chicago area. Though it appeared to be contained, these are the types of outbreaks that the GAO fears would not be able to be suppressed in the event of a national outbreak.
The USDA and HHS employ the majority of the federal government’s veterinarians that are responsible for inspecting food as well as monitoring wildlife for diseases and testing animal feed and medicine as well as probing into human outbreaks stemming from animal illnesses. The GAO has even designated the agency as a “high-risk” government area for personnel shortages that could result in risks to public health.
The issue has been around for years and auditors said that the USDA has taken some steps to address planning practices and personnel shortages. In 2009, the Office of Personnel Management “granted government-wide direct-hire authority to enable agencies to hire qualified veterinarians without regard to certain federal hiring requirements,” the auditors said.
Still, the shortages remain and more needs to be done. The USDA agreed with the auditors recommendations.
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