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Biosecurity is all about understanding and consistent implementation

By Cesar A. Corzo, Associate Professor and Leman Chair in Swine Health and Productivity, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota
The article was originally printed in The LAND - November 16/November 23, 2018.

Infectious diseases of swine continue to be a major challenge for pig producers and swine veterinarians around the world. Diseases become profit robbers due to poor performance and high mortality, something that every producer wants to avoid in their farms.

Besides the economic impact, there is also a psychological impact in that disease outbreaks generate frustration and lower morale, which together have an indirect impact on future performance. Thanks to intense research, disease behavior, specifically, how pathogens like viruses or bacteria transmit, has been understood. This knowledge has allowed researchers and swine veterinarians to develop measures and protocols to avoid transmission and keep animals healthy. In simple terms, the group of these measures focused on avoiding the introduction of pathogens into a farm is known as biosecurity.

Biosecurity not only refers to swine or food animal production medicine, it is also used in human medicine and we actually even use it at home! At home and school, we are taught basic measures that fall into “personal biosecurity”; for instance, washing our hands before every meal or after using the restroom and brushing our teeth are some basic examples of how we work towards keeping pathogens from entering our bodies.

On the other hand, biosecurity is not only about preventing but also about pathogen containment so that infectious individuals do not share or disseminate the pathogen to others. Some examples are covering our cough or avoid shaking hands while fighting a cough, this will decrease the chances of the pathogen becoming airborne or transmitting through a simple handshake. As mentioned, biosecurity is used at different levels (i.e. individual, population, regional and national) and across different industries as we continue to work towards clean environments and reduction of infectious disease risk.

In the swine industry, producers and veterinarians have worked intensely to implement biosecurity measures as they clearly know that prevention is cheaper than controlling the disease. Different measures have been adopted such as farm employee shower-in/shower-out, use of farm-specific clothing and shoes, cleaning-disinfection-drying of trucks, use of isolation or quarantine facilities for disease monitoring of incoming breeding-stock, water chlorination, ultraviolet chambers together with disinfection and drying rooms for the introduction of farm supplies and lately air filtration. All these biosecurity measures have proven to be important when preventing disease introduction, especially when they are implemented in an orchestrated and consistent manner.

However, today the swine industry still has questions related to transmission routes of certain pathogens as farms with high biosecurity standards continue to suffer unexplained outbreaks of disease as a result of pathogen introduction.

Let’s use the most important disease in the US swine industry (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome virus - PRRSv) as an example. This disease costs the industry more than $664 millions per year; therefore, producers continue to invest in biosecurity measures to keep the virus from reaching their herds. However, the virus continues to evade these biosecurity measures generating a great deal of frustration. Data from the Morrison Swine Health Monitoring Project (MSHMP), a voluntary program that has been conducted for almost 10 years and which accounts for approximately 50% of the US breeding herd, has shown that on average, 30% of the 1,000 breeding herds in the project break with PRRS on a yearly basis.

The data has consistently shown that the virus tends to infect more breeding herds during the fall and winter; however, outbreaks still occur during the summer. When the data was analyzed regionally, Minnesota followed the fall-winter outbreak pattern whereas Iowa had a different and more consistent pattern throughout the year leading us to think that there are regional attributes that need to be understood. These valuable pieces of information have allowed both producers and practitioners to be vigilant in specific seasons throughout the year. Unfortunately, after having included important biosecurity procedures and knowing when the virus may come we are still being surprised with new infections that cannot be explained as outbreak investigations do not always yield a conclusive answer that could lead to improvements or corrective intervention strategies.

One area that requires further understanding is biosecurity compliance which refers to whether the protocols are being followed by everyone working at the farm 24/7 throughout the year. This is important especially when all these biosecurity procedures are human-driven. Compliance is related to many factors: discipline, motivation, mindset, and ownership, among others. As humans, it is well known that some are more disciplined than others and tend to be more compliant. Some examples can be found at home when examining whether we are disciplined with our diet or exercise routine. There are studies in the literature that examine the degree of compliance related to patients with cardiovascular disease or tuberculosis as these patients are required to take daily medication. These studies have shown that treatment adherence or compliance is not perfect.

Another example that examines compliance, but in a medical environment, is related to hand washing practices at hospitals. As mentioned earlier, hand washing is key to avoid pathogen dissemination and in hospitals this is required as part of their protocols. However, surveys conducted have demonstrated that there is room for improvement as not everyone follows these protocols. Interestingly, compliance levels of these practices tended to be related to work saturation, the higher the workload the lower the level of compliance.

In animal health, information related to assessment of biosecurity compliance is scarce. A survey conducted among cattle producers in Belgium to assess the implementation level of biosecurity measures concluded that these were poorly implemented. In the poultry industry, a study using video surveillance quantified and described the type of biosecurity measure errors made by personnel entering and exiting poultry barns. Findings from this study raised awareness that on average, 4 errors were made per visit, with the maximum number of errors per individual per visit being 12. In the swine industry, a survey was conducted to understand compliance both through an auto-assessment as well as by assessing peer compliance. In both assessment, employees did not reach perfection from a compliance standpoint. 

Despite this body of evidence, there is still an important knowledge gap and the swine industry is working to further understand how often these noncompliant events occur, and whether they have trends in order to start developing methodologies to increase and maintain compliance.

Therefore, it is important for producers and veterinarians to re-assess their biosecurity programs. Before investing in new technologies or changing procedures, it is important to understand whether the team at the farm clearly understands the do’s, the don’ts and why they are being asked to implement procedures in such a manner. It is important to make sure everyone is involved, and even more importantly that there’s ownership. Understanding and ownership are key in encouraging team members to enforce biosecurity measures within the team, and to help keep team members following the biosecurity plan.   


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