Animal and human health are closely linked. As a result, animals have the potential to acquire and spread diseases to humans; these are known as zoonotic diseases.
Currently, our nation and the world are concerned with the potential for Avian influenza to spread from birds to the human population. Avian influenza, commonly called the Bird Flu, is an infection caused by an influenza virus that normally affects the bird population but has been found to be infectious to humans also. The virus can be passed through the feces, nasal secretions, and saliva of infected birds, which makes it fairly easy to be passed between birds—especially in the close quarters of production facilities. Because influenza viruses have the ability to mutate, avian influenza is viewed as a potential threat for widespread infection in the human population.
Another zoonotic disease is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), better known as “Mad Cow Disease.” BSE is a fatal disease caused by infection from a prion (an abnormal form of protein) that affects the nervous system. The disease spreads between animals by feeding cattle BSE-contaminated cattle protein or scrapie-infected sheep meat-and-bone meal (scrapie is a similar disease to BSE affecting sheep).
You may remember that several years ago Europe suffered outbreaks of BSE, which resulted in the deaths of numerous animals and several people. There is a variant of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease, that does affect humans and is thought to be caused by eating BSE-contaminated beef products. The U.S. federal government has a surveillance program in effect to control this disease.
These diseases, in addition to other zoonoses, not only compromise animal and subsequently human health but an outbreak can economically devastate the country of origin due to the destruction of affected animals and trade restrictions placed on agricultural imports from that country.
Scientists and government officials are continuously working on ways to prevent zoonotic disease outbreaks while preserving the agricultural industry within the United States.
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