by JIM ALGIE
With the discovery in early April of Avian Influenza in Ontario, Melanie Barham quickly convened the poultry panel of veterinarians in her Ontario Animal Health Network.
It was a major test for her 16-month-old organization and a good example of how the network can help manage production-limiting disease among farm livestock in the province, Barham said during an interview, Tuesday, from her office at the University of Guelph’s animal health lab.
“We looked at gaps, where there were problems and what we should do to address them,” Barham said. “I think everybody agreed the commercial guys were pretty well covered and the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) was doing an excellent job,” the animal health network coordinator said.
“Where, as a group, the practitioners saw a gap were the small producers and that we needed to improve the information that was getting out to them and what they need to know and to make sure they were aware of the risk,” Barham said. CFIA officials declared an end to the epidemic in July but not before Barham’s Guelph office joined the battle with messages posted on her Ontario Animal Health Network website, pod casts, information graphics, as well as postings to Kijiji where many bird swapping deals get done.
Animal health network veterinarians, all of them poultry practitioners active in the field, joined conference calls organized through small flock producers groups to discuss the risks and useful biosecurity measures.
An equine veterinarian hired at least partly because of her experience with digital media, Barham has organized 10 similar networks of practicing vets, livestock producers and others since moving to the animal health lab. It’s part of a five-year, $1.3 million per year, federal/provincial program through the University of Guelph to improve disease surveillance in Ontario.
Each network organizes a group of vets who complete anonymous surveys of trends in their practices and meet during quarterly conference calls and crises to discuss disease trends and possible responses. It’s important that each network be based on the participation of veterinarians who have ethical obligations of client confidentiality, Barham said. But a big part of her job is to engage producers and other interested participants.
On the OHNA website, Barham posts reports from network vets as well as a variety of podcasts and articles relating to current issues. The first network online concentrated on small ruminants. Next came swine, horses and poultry. There are separate networks for fish and bees, companion animals, horses, wildlife and alternative species.
The bovine network began in May and hosted a series of articles on problems this summer with bovine respiratory disease. Vets on the bovine network are currently tracking salmonella Dublin, a severe respiratory illness mainly among veal calves with potential transfer to humans.
“It’s an issue in the veal industry,” Barham said. “Parts of the United States have issues with it and parts of Canada. It’s just an emerging issue in Ontario,” she said.
Because the bovine network is relatively new, Barham is still looking for ways to engage cattle farmers in what she hopes will become a broader conversation about cattle disease issues.
“The nice thing about the network and one of the things I love about it and what drew me from practice is that it really gives credit to everybody,” Barham said. “Government doesn’t know everything. Academics don’t know everything. People in the field don’t know everything. But everybody has a role to play and expertise to lend. And if we work together I think we’re better off than if we don’t.”
Although the animal health network’s current grant is limited, Barham is working to create a relatively low cost, sustainable operation. Other parts of the disease surveillance program include the development of improved lab tools for diagnosis and the integration of Ontario surveillance methods with national efforts.
The objective is to ensure “Ontario is at the forefront of diagnosing and being able to develop tests as fast and as good as possible,” Barham said.
As an equine practitioner, Barham used a variety of digital media to communicate with clients, everything from Facebook videos to tweets and pod casts. As a result, she’s loading the OHAN website with similar media in order to draw producer traffic and lay groundwork for an information exchange.
A recent survey of the website shows dozens of items about everything from honeybee health to the discovery of blue tongue in Ontario. BF