Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) have developed a program that allows livestock producers to determine how their animals got sick or even to stop disease from encroaching onto their farms altogether.
Run by Penn Vet’s Dr. Meghann Pierdon, the program relies on geospatial information systems (GIS) to pinpoint current and emerging disease hot spots, share information about outbreaks with producers and strategize community approaches to control potentially devastating diseases, according to an announcement from Penn Vet.
Pierdon uses GIS data to update a secure website with a map that illustrates, in near-real time, regions where pigs or poultry have tested for disease and identify areas that may be at risk. The database is updated quarterly to be sure that everything is accurate and communication is open to producers, Penn Vet said.
In 2012, nearly a quarter of the swine monitored by Penn Vet’s swine disease mapping program — the Pennsylvania Regional Control Program (PRCP) — were on farms testing positive for disease. Since participating in PRCP, which is operated by Pierdon and funded by the Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council, that number has declined to 15% — or 17% if Ohio and Indiana are included.
As a result of its success, industry participation in PRCP has doubled to include more than 100 farmer, hauler, feed and genetics companies and veterinarian members across Pennsylvania, Penn Vet reported.
The idea is to provide usable data so farmers can take the information and make informed production decisions.
“For example, we can set up protected zones where we only want negative pigs,” Pierdon said. “Producers can then make appropriate decisions based on that information — such as being careful if buying feeders from infected area or preventing a feed truck that was on a farm with active disease from going directly to their farm — to help cuts the disease spread."
Several years ago, the first swine disease Pierdon tracked was porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), but now porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) has caught her attention.
Most of the GIS data are drawn from Pennsylvania farms, but since neither commerce nor disease heed state lines, she also gathers information from Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, Penn Vet said. On the pig side, a veterinarian or producer fills in a template with basic data like the farm’s address, where the pigs came from and where they will go next. On the poultry side, most of the information comes to her through the lab system. She sees a flock identifier and farm address.
“PRCP has been instrumental in helping the industry understand the scope and impact of this new PEDV disease and in implementing the best biosecurity measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus,” she said.
While it is endemic, PRRS is preventable, Pierdon said. The idea is to decrease the number of farms that are affected by an outbreak. “Then, a producer can clean it up and not have to worry that it will come back,” she added.
Most recently, Pierdon’s GIS mapping has played an integral part in safeguarding Pennsylvania poultry farms from an outbreak of coryza. Similar to a head cold in humans, coryza is a contagious bacterial disease of poultry that presents with secretion of mucus deposits in the mouth and throat. The implications for production on farms whose birds have contracted the disease, however, are serious, she said.
“It cropped up in December 2018 and progressed in number of cases until late spring,” Pierdon said. While it slowed this summer, she said she is noticing and mapping an uptick in the number of cases now.
In addition to providing on-farm outreach and support, Penn Vet also works with federal and state agencies. While government tracks foreign disease threats like foot and mouth disease, Pierdon’s focus is on monitoring diseases that loom as a threat to farmers but are not reportable to the government.
“It really is all about improving and implementing biosecurity,” she said, adding that the data she gathers help agencies understand how the industry is structured.
There have also been what Pierdon calls “nibbles of interest” in applying her GIS program to help safeguard other agriculture industries, mainly aquaculture and honeybees.
No matter where the system is deployed, the main objective is to decrease the amount of disease spread and give producers control over safeguarding their farms or operations.
“We’re not just looking to respond to the disease in the moment but, ultimately, provide biosecurity solutions that can protect our animals, our people and our environment from the next ‘big, bad bug,’” she said.
Penn Vet is ranked among the top 10 veterinary schools worldwide and is a global leader in veterinary education, research and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal and environmental health.
Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa., provides care for dogs, cats and other domesticated/companion animals, handling nearly 35,300 patient visits a year. The New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, Pa., cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles nearly 5,300 patient visits per year, while its Field Service treats more than 38,000 patients at local farms. In addition, the New Bolton Center campus includes a swine center, working dairy and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.