STATEMENT OF SENATOR WAYNE ALLARD
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening this timely hearing. I appreciate your interest and leadership, as well as Senator Jeffords’ and Senator Ensign’s leadership on this issue. You may not know this, but both Senator Ensign and I received our Doctors of Veterinary Medicine degree from Colorado State University. Although we were not in the same class, I do try to apply the seniority system. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to address this issue and thank the witnesses for their participation. I would also like to commend those agencies present for the work they did to contain the disease and the strong focus they continue to place on protecting the American people. This hearing is not about beating people up - it is about making sure you have the right tools to do your job effectively.
The danger posed by the importation of exotic species and the introduction - either intentionally or unintentionally - of animal borne diseases is not new. What is new is the time it takes to transfer animals from country to country, as well as the variety of animals now imported. What once took three months to voyage across the ocean now only takes a matter of hours to land on US soil. The mosquito infecting Asian villages in the morning can reach the Los Angeles metropolitan area that same afternoon. We are living in a fast paced world in which the importation of exotic species poses a dynamic challenge to human health, and it is a challenge that must be handled through the application of sound science, reasonable regulations and responsible oversight.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this modern phenomena as well as the recent outbreak of West Nile Virus, and its subsequent spread across the continent. West Nile serves as a prime example of the nexus between an animal disease and human health. The disease is a threat to human health as well as animal health. In fact, the coordination and communication between animal health experts and human health experts has never been more important than it is today as highlighted by West Nile and now monkeypox.
Over the past several years I have attempted to elevate the level of concern about the risk we face from zoonotic diseases and, in particular, the impact animal to human diseases have on public policy. During the farm bill, I worked with members of the Agriculture Committee to include report language that directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy to consult experts in animal health should a bio-terrorism event occur.
Last year, I had the opportunity to address a conference on biosecurity hosted by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Among those attending were scientists and medical researchers, university professors and students, along with a host of practicing veterinarians, who presented a series of papers on the risks associated with bio-terrorism. At this time, I would like to share with you some of the findings I presented to the conference.
According to a pre-September 11th GAO report, nearly three out of every four emerging diseases reach humans through animals - of the 156 emerging diseases documented in the report, 73 percent are zoonotic. Furthermore, the report went on to note that of 1700 known pathogens, 49 percent are zoonotic.
Some may think the possibilities of a major disease outbreak caused by something as common as a prairie dog is far too remote to worry about. Yet recount the details of the monkeypox outbreak. Illinois state officials determined that the source of the infected prairie dogs was an exotic pet dealer in Villa Park, Illinois. The prairie dogs appear to have been exposed to the virus through contact with Gambian rats imported from Africa that were intended to be sold as pets. A Texas distributor imported the rats together with rope squirrels, dormice, and other small mammals. Once arriving in Illinois, the exposed prairie dogs were held in close proximity with other animals of numerous species, some of which might be susceptible to infection with orthopoxviruses. The following animals were on the Illinois premises: hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, squirrels, mice, pygmy hedgehogs, jerboas, mole rats, degus, and Brazilian possums. In addition, the dealer had recently sold wallabies, armadillos, short-tailed opossums, raccoons, sugar gliders, and possibly nonhuman primates. While wallabies and pygmy hedgehogs may not be common household pets, hamsters, gerbils and mice are common inhabitants of children’s rooms and school houses.
But we must also avoid the temptation to create a zoonotic hysteria. We are not looking at “The Hotzone,” nor are we looking at the movie “28 Days Later.” And I really don’t expect the four horseman of the apocalypse to come trotting through the room any time soon. For those of us in this room, it is our duty to do everything we can to protect human health and prevent these types of things from happening.
While the main focus of this hearing is certainly the impacts that these animals have on the health of humans, as a veterinarian I am also concerned with the impacts that importation of exotic species have on the animals themselves. There is a high rate of mortality in exotic species. This occurs both during shipment and after the animal is purchased and taken home. Another problem that I see is that few people are qualified to properly care for an exotic animal. The animals often end up neglected or cared for in an inappropriate manner. I do not think that this is acceptable. Pets are a huge responsibility and the decision to adopt one should not be taken lightly.
I look forward to hearing from the witnesses, particularly as they share their views on regulations, both existing and lacking, trace-backs and dangers posed by importation. I would be particularly interested in your thoughts regarding a quarantine period. I believe that one easy safeguard is to make sure a quarantine period is applied to imported species of animals, but I would like to know your thoughts on the matter.
Again, Mr. Chairman, thank you.