Monitoring Livestock Disease Outbreaks in Real-Time

From late September to mid-October sporadic cases of avian influenza were reported at poultry farms in South Africa, China, parts of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Israel, suggesting a possible global outbreak. In Thailand and Cambodia, farmers were fretting over an outbreak of lumpy skin disease, an ailment that afflicts cattle. The northern coast of Brazil saw a case of classical swine fever. At the same time, African swine fever was hitting regions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Grow Further knows this thanks to a new online global livestock disease tracking system outfitted with advanced geographic information systems (GIS) software, cloud computing applications, and other new features that could help agricultural officials better protect both animals and humans on farms, especially at vulnerable smallholder farms where animal infections can prove devastating to people’s livelihoods. It’s a perfect example of how innovation can be employed to the benefit of farmers everywhere, particularly in more impoverished parts of the world, but more work is required to make this powerful new tool fully inclusive.

On October 22, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced the launch of its latest version of EMPRES-i, now dubbed EMPRES-i+ (https://empres-i.apps.fao.org/). This announcement comes as the COVID-19 human pandemic still rages in Africa and South America, with signs of a resurgence in Russia and the United Kingdom. Scientists generally believe COVID-19 originated as an animal disease, and FAO says that the ongoing human pandemic underscores the need for better global monitoring of livestock disease risks wherever they may occur.

The new system allows agricultural authorities to report agricultural animal disease outbreaks in any jurisdiction to as many relevant parties, and as quickly as possible, to contain disease spreads. The hope is that the reporting and tracking system will help minimize impacts to food security, livestock health, and human wellbeing. Where national health officials have the World Health Organization, government and regional animal agriculture authorities can now rely on EMPRES-i+, FAO Director General Qu Dongyu said. “Strong international and national animal health systems are key to prevent diseases, ensure safe and nutritious food, and protect farmers’ interests,” he noted at the global launch of the new system from FAO’s headquarters in Rome.

Early warning of animal disease epidemics

The original EMPRES-i system was rolled out back in 2004, or 17 years ago. Initially designed as a public database whereby national animal health authorities could request data to keep an eye out for threats to livestock and farms, the old system proved useful for tracking bird flu and other contagions. Still, the original reporting system had limited functionality and proved somewhat slow and cumbersome. FAO says it has now changed this.

“Countries will be able to prepare for possible disease outbreaks early in advance”

The new system is now available 24 hours a day online, accessible from any laptop, desktop, or smartphone. Reports are now cataloged and shared via an enhanced web GIS interface. FAO says the new system was further improved to enable agricultural officials to forecast where new disease outbreaks might occur in a bid to give animal health authorities early warnings of potential animal disease threats and how they might propagate. “From this function, countries will be able to prepare for possible disease outbreaks early in advance,” FAO says. This new system now relies on a cloud computing-based reporting system that’s interoperable with other reporting platforms, easing the process of notifying the world about possible animal disease risks.

GIS for farm animal health monitoring

The system has other interactive features familiar to those who use GIS software. With EMPRES-i+, users can use a ruler tool to estimate the distances between different reports of outbreaks on farms or ranches. For instance, two separate cases of avian influenza were reported in South Africa on the same day, October 5, but at locations 1,169 kilometers apart on opposite sides of the country, according to the system. Meanwhile, a South African rancher reported a case of foot and mouth disease in cattle at a site just 256 kilometers away from the easternmost reported avian influenza case. Users can also highlight portions of the map and then use a “story” feature to create presentations or include notes which can then be shared with others online, or via printouts. The system gives one the precise geographic coordinates for the area highlighted and offers the option of downloading all data available from cases reported only in that highlighted area, similar to a selection tool in GIS software applications.

Advanced nations already have systems in place for reporting and tracking livestock disease outbreaks. Most developing nations do not, and it’s the developing nations and their struggling smallholder farmers who stand to benefit the most from FAO’s newest innovation. But already it’s apparent that agricultural authorities and farmers in smallholder farming countries either need more encouragement to use these systems or better tools and training to equip them to do so. From the map, it’s clear that reporting on livestock health and disease tracking is fairly advanced in countries with better governmental capacities—reports appear concentrated in Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia. Reports from the African continent, however, are conspicuously absent, with the exception of South Africa and Morocco. Thus, one can already see room for improvement with EMPRES-i+.

The newest EMPRES-i+ system is impressive, but it can’t do everything. And FAO warns that it won’t work at all unless national authorities cooperate and act in a fully transparent manner, uploading all the information they have on animal disease outbreaks as quickly as possible so that their colleagues across borders can lend assistance and protect their own farmers from emerging threats to both farm animal and human health.

At Grow Further, we’re also excited about the potential of the system to serve smallholder farmers and their veterinarians directly in a future round of development, and may be supporting projects in this area.

— Grow Further

Photo credit: A screenshot of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s new EMPRES-i+ livestock disease outbreak early warning system, with colored dots denoting animal disease reports. FAO.

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