WHEN I left the US in 2009, scientists there had already started researching on digital Apps for detecting diseases in cattle and other domestic animals.  

By 2014 they had launched several new Apps for the prevention, surveillance and monitoring of veterinary diseases.

After the successful piloting in four States of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, the Enhanced Passive Surveillance (EPS) system would be piloted in all major animal industries in at least 15 States over the next three years. 

The National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD Center), a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence, hosted the official project launch meeting in November 2013, in Fort Collins, Colorado, with officials from the (DHS) Center of Excellence, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), animal health professionals, State animal health officials and other stakeholders.

Framework for strengthening zoonotic disease surveillance in remote rural areas that would facilitate integration into existing surveillance systems.

Researchers from the Texas Center for Applied Technology (TCAT) were also on hand to present the customised suite of tools they developed for the EPS project. TCAT is part of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and is working on this project in partnership with the Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense – FAZD Center.

The EPS system, developed by FAZD Centre is designed to provide early detection of potential disease outbreaks or changes in animal health status. 

Currently, the system captures animal health information on both healthy and sick animals from mixed-animal, poultry and equine veterinarians in real-time through the use of mobile technologies. The information is then organised into an easy-to-use computer display for monitoring and analysis where it is integrated with data from veterinary diagnostic laboratories, wildlife biologists and livestock markets. 

During a disease outbreak, the system could provide timely surveillance information to emergency managers, state animal health officials and veterinarians, allowing them to respond to situations as they develop. 

In addition, documenting the number of animals observed or examined by veterinarians for clinical signs compatible with certain endemic and high consequence animal diseases, and documenting healthy animals will assist the USDA  in identifying geographic areas that are absent of a disease event during an outbreak to assist in demonstrating disease freedom to US trading partners. 

The expansion of EPS system builds on the success of the two smaller pilot projects: a proof-of-concept pilot funded through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Science and Technology Directorate that focused on cattle and small ruminants, like sheep and goats; and an expansion of this pilot, funded by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that focused on the equine and poultry industries. 

For the cattle and small ruminants’ pilot, iPad users in three States have submitted more than 13 000 surveillance reports since July 2012. This information represents the health status of more than 930 000 animals in those States.

“The collaboration between the FAZD Center, DHS, USDA, state animal health officials, veterinarians and industry stakeholders was crucial for the success of the initial EPS pilot projects. EPS allows us to put mobile technologies in veterinarian’s hands and collect animal health data at local, regional or national levels. This allows the integration of surveillance data into a common display for early detection of emerging and high consequence disease outbreaks,” said Tammy R. Beckham, DVM, Ph.D and FAZD Center Director.

Dr Tammy Beckham served as the director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory from 2008 to 2014.

The ease-of-use of the mobile technology for reporting animal health information from veterinarians in the field significantly impacted the success of the programme.  The EPS System also provides valuable information back to veterinarians regarding animal health in their state or geographic region, providing access to a unique information source that enhances their situational awareness and aids in animal disease diagnosis and treatment.  

In addition, the FAZD Centre identifies and builds incentives into the system to encourage user-participation and support the day-to-day use of these tools and technology.

Phase II of the project, an expanded pilot to 15 States, is funded through 

US$2 million in Federal funds from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Science and Technology Directorate to protect US animal agriculture.  The project has the potential for an investment of nearly US$9 million over three years of implementation, subject to availability of Federal appropriations.

More than 40 participants gathered in Colorado to discuss the Phase II project structure, organisation and the implementation plan for the expanded pilot of the EPS System. 

Dr Beckham welcomed the attendees and led discussions on the meeting’s objectives and project goal: “To expand the pilot of the EPS system in all major commercial livestock industries in key regions of the United States and further demonstrate the efficacy of the overall approach while maximizing the coverage and representation across each industry (sic).”

Lindsey Holmstrom, DVM and FAZD Center’s research scientist, and Dr. Keith Biggers, Ph.D and TCAT director of Computing and Information Technology, presented the EPS pilot system results and discussed future goals with attendees.

“EPS leverages veterinarians in the field for reporting on animal health at the time they are observing or treating animals,” said Dr Holmstrom. 

“This is a unique and critical data source for supporting animal health and disease surveillance that we previously did not have available in real-time. The system also provides information back to veterinarians from others reporting into the system, based on established data sharing protocols, which increases their awareness of the disease status in their geographic area.”

Whereas the proof-of-concept pilot included data from veterinarians, livestock markets and diagnostic laboratories, Phase II, the expanded pilot of the EPS, includes increasing the user-base, adding producers, agriculture company veterinarians and production managers as well as wildlife sources, such as wildlife biologists and organisations.

The main focus of the Phase II expanded pilot effort is to continue to enhance the system and develop a sustainable system that is nationally accepted and supports the agriculture industries. With the funding provided by DHS, Science and Technology and USDA, the EPS System allows producers and veterinarians access to real-time data for evaluation of animal health status, changes in this status and tools to manage overall herd health.

“Ultimately, this project will demonstrate the power of data integration and aggregation. Through the EPS technology and working closely with our federal partners, the US will ultimately have a tool that will allow them to have real time situational awareness and ultimately defend our food supply from disease outbreaks through low-cost technology and real-time reporting,” reported Dr Beckham.

In Zimbabwe, Bongani Masuku, an independent young agro-scientist, has developed various crop and livestock digital applications that combine artificial intelligence (AI) with data mining to resolve agro-veterinary challenges faced primarily by rural farmers in Zimbabwe.

Masuku’s digital applications include Botvet, which is an acronym for robot veterinary, dealing with all livestock enquiries and ‘Mudhumeni on Line’ attending to crop diseases and requisite supplements that fall under the auspices of RERA – which means nurturing on-line farming in Zimbabwe. The applications available on smartphones are targetting over 90 percent of Zimbabwean farmers — both communal and commercial — and are accessible on various digital portals.

Dr Tony M. Monda is Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst-consultant.  He is currently conducting veterinary epidemiology, agro-economic and food security research in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.  He holds a PhD, DVM and a DBA. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com


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