The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's foremost animal disease research facility.
Once built, NBAF scientists will study diseases that threaten America’s animal agricultural industry and public health.
In a state with more than 4 million cattle on feed - roughly 3 million situated in an area around Dodge City - that work is essential, said Justin Smith, the Kansas Animal Health commissioner.
“It’s right in our back door,” said Smith, who watches the progress every day as he goes to work.
The “Silicon Valley” complex situated in Manhattan brings in a wealth of intellectual knowledge, Smith said. Moreover, for Kansas, response time regarding testing for a potential disease quickens. Instead of a 24-hour turnaround from Plum Island, it might just take four hours to get results of a test back.
Smith said the state does about 25 foreign animal investigations every year, compared to the national average of 1,000. Often, results come back negative. For instance, Seneca Valley virus has the same symptoms as foot-and-mouth disease.
Foot-and-mouth disease was last identified in the United States in 1929. However, the highly contagious disease is the biggest threat to Kansas agriculture. It affects cloven-hooved animals like cattle, sheep, swine and goats.
But if something happened - and a test came back positive - the state has a fluid response plan in place. For instance, every year, officials conduct a four-day foot-and-mouth outbreak exercise. Meanwhile, in June, the Kansas Department of Agriculture launched a volunteer corps - aimed at training industry leaders to help with the response.
“We’re still in the recruitment and getting the word out phase,” said David Hogg, who is heading up the Kansas Agriculture Emergency Response Corps.
“Really, the biggest thing we need in a disease outbreak is people,” he added. “We just don't have enough people between our responders and KDA, USDA. There just isn’t enough of us. To really manage a disease outbreak of that scale, we need more folks spread out across the state.”
So far, 40 volunteers have come on board, he said. There are 23 volunteer positions, which range from laboratory technicians, security guards and communications personnel to appraisers, educators, laborers and accountants. Those interested fill out applications and go through training, Hogg said.
“We are really the first state in the nation to try this,” he said.
Ken Burton, program director for the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center (NABC), housed together with the Biosecurity Research Institute in K-State’s Pat Roberts Hall, said part of his work is on preparatory for foreign animal disease response in livestock.
An important part of that preparation includes training and educating those on the front line in dealing with a foreign animal disease outbreak, Burton said, noting last month that he spent time in southwest Kansas training agricultural first responders.
In rural communities, emergency responders are often volunteers. NABC’s Animal Disease Response Training program offers training to nontraditional animal disease responders, such as firefighters, law enforcement and public health officials - educating them about their role during an animal emergency situation.
“These first responders are used to responding to tornadoes, floods and fires,” Burton said. “But an animal disease outbreak could go a year or year and a half in response.”
It was his own experience with a foreign animal disease in 2002 that sparked his interest and led him to take the position in Manhattan. Burton, who spent 28 years as a veterinarian in Rice County, said the West Nile virus outbreak that fall made him realize just how devastating the introduction of a foreign animal disease could be to both livestock and humans.
As for Kansas’ farmers and ranchers, Burton said, “they are critical to the successful early reporting and response to livestock disease outbreaks, and they should be aware of the important role they and their local veterinarians play in helping identify and control a disease outbreak.”