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One Health Biosurveillance: An Important Tool for Limiting Societal Disruption

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Myers and Lindsey Proskey
March 24, 2023

Even as the Biden administration is preparing to end the COVID-19 emergency in the United States, another potential pandemic threat is looming. The only hope to avoid some of the rancor, confusion and division surrounding that pandemic, is being able to see the threat early enough to carefully deliberate on a strategy and try to get as many Americans as possible on board.

The importance of taking a One Health approach to pandemic preparedness has been highlighted by recent examples of non-avian animals dying from avian influenza in the wild. Recent findings from the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) speak to the continuing circulation of H5N1 in the United States. These cases speak to the need for local, state, national and international participation in surveillance networks with a One Health approach that emphasizes the connections between human health, domesticated animal health, livestock health, wildlife health and the status of the larger environment.

The APHIS program was given funding through the American Rescue Plan to create a strategic surveillance framework. The rationale for the new framework notes that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic. The new APHIS strategic framework is meant to address concerns such as inconsistent linkage between human and animal surveillance and lab systems and challenges with data collection, exchange, analysis and reporting. The goal of the APHIS framework is to create a global early warning system to identify emerging threats, institute control measures, promote research to identify gaps in the system, prevent spillover from animal to human populations and guard against disruption of the food supply. The framework also recommends more attention to education and outreach to underserved and marginalized populations and those working in the agricultural sector. The USDA also seeks to improve the accuracy and timeliness of messaging and to build communication partnerships with academics, industry and non-profit organizations.

These efforts are complemented by the One Health focus in the recently issued National Biodefense Strategy. That strategy calls for the use of biosurveillance to detect threats affecting human, animal or plant populations as well as overall environmental conditions. In particular it seeks to expand the United States capacity to detect, surveil and control zoonotic disease threats and to prevent spillover events from occurring.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the measures used to try to contain it and the backlash against such measures, it is vitally important to identify emerging threats and contain them before they reach the point of severe societal disruption. According to the January 30, 2023 report by NETEC, there have been 8683 cases of human H5N1 infections since 2003, with 53 percent (457) resulting in death. There was one human case reported in the United States in April 2022. Ecuador reported a case of a 9-year old girl infected after exposure to backyard poultry on January 9, 2023. In February 2023, an 11-year old girl died of the virus in Cambodia. Cases of people exposed to H5N1 are being monitored by the CDC influenza division in the United States. As of March 6, 2023, 6,315 people had been monitored; 163 reported symptoms; and one tested positive. Transmission of avian influenza is extremely rare between humans, but there is the concern, considering the increase in cases found in other mammals, that the virus may be mutating to a more transmissible form.

In addition to the serious potential health risks, the recent resurgence of H5N1 has also had serious economic effects seen via the increase in the price of eggs due to the deaths of tens of millions of chickens. This has led the Biden administration to consider a mass vaccination campaign for chickens in the United States. In the meantime farms are being encouraged to implement other control measures, such as stepping up disinfection procedures among farm workers. However, these more traditional methods are not proving to be effective with the widespread infection among wild birds. Trade is an important consideration, as chicken is an important U.S. export and countries want assurances they are not importing infected meat—assurances which would be more difficult to provide if chickens are vaccinated.

The proposed vaccination plan is already creating divisions within the poultry industry and between scientists. Given the prevalence of state laws attempting to limit vaccination in humans, there is likely to be domestic opposition to poultry vaccination in the United States as well. Effective One Health surveillance for zoonotic threats is imperative so that risks can be identified early and there is opportunity to have informed deliberations on costs and benefits of various approaches. Then, once a course of action is agreed upon, there will be more opportunity to effectively communicate with the public about the risks and benefits of the plan. While this is certainly not a cure-all for the partisan and cultural divisions that are sure to face any public health strategy, early detection and warning is an important tool for limiting societal disruption in the future.

Author: Nathan Myers, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Master of Public Administration at Indiana State University. His areas of research include public policy, public health emergency preparedness, and the governance of biotechnology. He is the author of Pandemics and Polarization: Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies. Myers serves as an academic advisor to the Continuity of Supply Initiative. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: nagremye1980

Author: Lindsey Proskey is a senior at Indiana State University studying Public Health with a minor in Biology. Lindsey will be attending Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology. 

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