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As Vesicular Stomatitis Spreads, What's The Impact On Colorado's Livestock Industry?

Drs. Brent Thompson and Fred Bourgeois
Colorado Department of Agriculture

Over 320 properties have been quarantined in 14 counties along Colorado's Front Range and eastern plains since the start of an outbreak of a virus mainly affecting horses. The outbreak of vesicular stomatitis began in Texas in May 2014, and was reported in Colorado in July of the same year. As the number of animals and the geographic area continues to grow, the economic impact on Colorado is beginning to take shape.

"Diseases are like forest fires," said State Veterinarian Dr. Keith Roehr. "For a fire you have to have a spark, in this case the spark is the virus. Then you have to have a susceptible population of animals, that's like dry firewood. And then you have to have something that moves it, in this case a competent insect factor which acts like the wind moving the fire through the forest."

Vesicular stomatitis is a virus spread by flies and causes painful blisters and sores around the mouth and nose of the affected animal and occasionally around the foot. Without treatment animals can die.

The movement of the virus has continued, despite colder weather, spreading as far south as Otero County which reported new cases in October. The outbreak began in Weld County in July, which to date has still had 90 properties quarantined, the most of any county. So far, Roehr noted, this outbreak has only resulted in a few deaths.

"Winter can't come soon enough."

But it isn't just the horse population that's at risk.

"Initially the first three or four weeks of the outbreak it was almost exclusively horses and then in time, we've seen more cattle cases surface," said Dr. Roehr. "As of late there have been 12 investigations that involve cattle."

The continued growth of the virus in Colorado has sparked restrictions on the export of almost all of Colorado's multimillion dollar livestock industry.

Credit United States Department of Agriculture / APHIS VS
While the 2014 vesicular stomatitis outbreak began in Texas, there have been many more properties quarantined in Colorado.

Some states have put new restrictions on Colorado livestock from entering without a clean bill of health. While this effort to contain the outbreak is important, it has lead to a potential loss to Colorado's economy, because of the time it takes to meet those requirements and the harm done to the state's reputation.

"We had a dairy that was near Fort Morgan that wanted to ship 400 dairy cows to California," said Dr. Roehr. "And in order for California to take them we had to show that there were no quarantine premises within a 10 mile radius of the dairy. Initially when that request to move was made there were half a dozen facilities that were under quarantine, so it took about three weeks of time before those facilities were released from quarantine then those cows could be inspected and when they were found of being clear of clinical signs they were moved to California."

Dr. Roehr said the impact to trade from this outbreak has been minimal.

The current quarantine strategies and fly control were developed after a severe outbreak in 1995. That summer, following an unusually wet spring, 367 properties in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Texas were positive for vesicular stomatitis.

A survey of 16 ranchers in Colorado's San Luis Valley whose beef herds were affected by the 1995 outbreak shows on average, the financial loss was $15,565 per ranch.

The 2014 outbreak is far worse than what experts consider the last significant outbreak in the state 9 years ago.

"We haven't seen an outbreak in Colorado since 2004," said Dr. Roehr. Documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the 2014 outbreak has easily eclipsed past numbers and continues to grow. Only 199 properties were quarantined in Colorado in 2009, compared to over 320 so far in 2014.

Dr. Roehr said his department is still getting between 1 and 3 cases reported daily, and that a hard freeze may be what finally stops the spread of the virus.

"Winter can't come soon enough," said Dr. Roehr. "My hope is that realistically probably early to mid-December we should be able to release the last of those premises that are under quarantine."

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