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AgConnect® technology showcases potential to protect US cattle industry

Sarah Caffey, MPH, IIAD program coordinator, assists John Wenzel, DVM, New Mexico State University Extension Veterinarian, with the AgConnect® mHealth mobile application during the Institute's AgConnect® Enhanced Passive Surveillance Exercise.
Sarah Caffey, MPH, IIAD program coordinator, assists John Wenzel, DVM, New Mexico State University Extension Veterinarian, with the AgConnect® mHealth mobile application during the Institute’s AgConnect® Enhanced Passive Surveillance Exercise.

In the spring of 2010, John Wenzel, DVM, New Mexico State University Extension Veterinarian, observed an increasing number of bred cows aborting their calves. By the fall of 2011, that number spiked even more. Using early technology that was later developed into the mHealth mobile application, a component of the AgConnect® system, Wenzel was able to better track and analyze his clinical visit data. Surprisingly to him, he found colleagues noting high abortion rates in other rural areas of New Mexico and was able to find two diseases as the common thread.

“Because of these results, over the course of a couple years, we really changed how we look at herd health and preventative vaccinations,” Wenzel said. “This gave us the opportunity to visualize and learn from the data that we had a problem that, on an individual basis, I don’t think we would’ve recognized.”

Melissa Berquist, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD), said that both the AgConnect® mHealth technology and concept of Enhanced Passive Surveillance (EPS) have been created to do just that – enable veterinarians to make better decisions through increased situational awareness. Earlier this week, Institute held the AgConnect® Enhanced Passive Surveillance Exercise to evaluate the potential impact of the system and concept.

The Exercise, held on August 22 and 23 at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Emergency Operations Training Center, utilized a notional, high-consequence disease outbreak in the cattle industry that affected cow/calf producers in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Participants – who ranged from state veterinarians and livestock industry representatives to US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) staff members – used the AgConnect® system to collaborate and leverage their collective resources just as they would during a real-life disease scenario.

“AgConnect® mHealth mobile applications and the EPS concept hold tremendous potential for widespread use across and impact upon food animal industries,” said Berquist. “Ultimately, a system of this nature can facilitate better decisions through the recognition and characterization of animal health anomalies, and mitigate the impacts of disease on animal agriculture. Use of mobile technology to bring field and laboratory data together in real-time allows veterinarians better insight in to herd health, increasing the safety and stability of our nation’s food animal industry along with the confidence of consumers and trade partners.”

In addition to outbreak response tools, AgConnect® mHealth uses the EPS concept to improve understanding of “normal” versus “abnormal” health events in the food animal industry by allowing practitioners to record health and production-level data on healthy and sick animals in the field through mobile apps customized for different commodities. The collected data is aggregated and integrated into an easy-to-use display, where combined with veterinary diagnostic test results, epidemiologists can compile and analyze data in real time in order to monitor animal health status more effectively.

“By organizing individually reported information about animal health on a state and regional level, the EPS system can assist individual veterinarians, industry and federal and state animal health officials in identifying emerging trends,” said Michelle Colby, DVM, MS, program manager in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, who provided funding for this project from S&T’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. “The earlier an outbreak is detected and managed, the lower the likelihood it will require federal assistance as part of the response.”

With approximately 400,000 head of cattle in transit to the next location in the production system at any given time, early detection on the local level is critical.

“Without AgConnect® mHealth you could have a lot of incidents occur and never be tied together,” Wenzel said. “The opportunity to share your data with someone else and get another opinion is huge – from a practitioner standpoint, it makes you feel like you’re not on an island.”

The Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD) focuses on research, education and outreach to prevent, detect, mitigate and recover from transboundary, emerging and/or zoonotic diseases, which may be introduced intentionally or through natural processes. IIAD is a member of the Texas A&M University System, a World Organisation for Animal Health Collaborating Centre in the specialty of biological threat reduction and a Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Emeritus Center of Excellence. For more information about the Institute, visit iiad.tamu.edu.

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