Federal agency severely understaffed to handle widespread animal disease outbreaks


USDA-APHIS would need thousands more veterinarians to respond appropriately, GAO reports.

The federal agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tasked with responding to widespread animal illness, such as avian influenza, doesn't have a proper response strategy in place should a large-scale outbreak occur, according a report put together by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO says the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) is greatly understaffed and doesn't have a “detailed plan to augment or train its workforce to respond” to widespread disease. The report also states that APHIS, as well as other USDA branches and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), do not have enough veterinarians deployed. There are about 624 veterinarians working at APHIS and 1,900 government-wide. In the case of a national outbreak, it's estimated that 6,000 veterinarians would be needed to properly respond.

The report also criticizes APHIS for not assessing its veterinarians to identify gaps in the workforce and not preparing an emergency animal health plan. In recent months the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an outbreak of the H3N2 canine influenza in the Chicago area. Though it appears to be contained, an outbreak such as that one is what the GAO fears would not be controllable in the event of a widespread outbreak. “Without these assessments, APHIS may be limited in its ability to mount an effective emergency response to an animal disease outbreak, with potentially serious consequences for the nation's agriculture sector,” the report states.  

The shortage has been a problem for several years, and the auditors note that the USDA has made progress in addressing planning strategy and personnel shortages. In 2009, the Office of Personnel Management granted government-wide direct-hire authority to enable agencies to hire qualified veterinarians without regard to certain federal hiring requirements, the report says. Still, the shortage continues. The USDA partially agreed with the auditor's recommendations, arguing that while they could do more to improve its estimates of veterinarian workforce needed for emergency response, it had made efforts to assess the needs.

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