Rabies, Anthrax and West Nile, Oh My: Veterinary Diagnostic Lab Critical to Colorado State University Land-Grant Mission, Health of Coloradans

Note to Reporters: Photos of Barb Powers and the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory are available with the news release at http://www.news.colostate.edu.

Anthrax. Rabies. Plague. Equine Herpes virus. West Nile virus. Avian flu. Cancer.

It’s just a sample of the kinds of diseases and pathogens that Colorado State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory veterinarians identify and diagnose daily as a service to the state of Colorado, but this summer was a particularly busy one: They saw the first case of anthrax in livestock in Colorado in 31 years, tested hundreds of animals for rabies and saw an uptick in West Nile infection in horses and, most recently, the first case of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in yaks.

While Coloradans enjoyed their summers, Dr. Barb Powers and her crew at the laboratory kept Colorado animals – and people – safe.

“We protect animal health, and by protecting animal health, we protect human health since many of these diseases and pathogens can be shared with humans,” said Powers, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is within the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “It’s part of diagnostic veterinary medicine that we deal with these diseases that can be contagious to humans.”

Most states have a similar diagnostic laboratory. The CSU facility – one of seven labs in the nation selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease – has come a long way from one veterinarian, one lab technician and one office worker 30 years ago.

Now a crew of 80 run about 500,000 tests a year – about 400 a day – to help diagnose and monitor sick pets and livestock on behalf of animal owners and government agencies such as the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Park Service and the Office of the State Veterinarian.

The state veterinarian’s office reports the illnesses that affect livestock and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report those diseases that are a potential threat to public health, but it is Powers’ crew that often make the diagnoses as a service to the state of Colorado, which is true to the university’s land-grant mission.

“Colorado State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory provides critical information to state government – and state residents – about the health of important animal populations and any potential impacts on human health,” said Dr. Keith Roehr, state veterinarian in the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “We have a close working partnership.”

Dr. Sunny Geiser-Novotny, the USDA Area Veterinarian in Charge noted, “The laboratory did an excellent job in diagnosing the anthrax case, providing a confirmed diagnosis the same day as receiving a recently dead bovine carcass and providing same-day results on all samples submitted afterwards for more than three weeks.”

No one factor contributed to the increase in some diseases this summer, CSU veterinarians said. Some, like the epizootic hemorrhagic disease, are carried by midges; others, like anthrax, appeared after certain weather conditions: a dry summer followed by a period of intense rain and high temperatures.

To some extent, the work done at the laboratory is seasonal.

“Rabies is seen more in the spring and summer when animals are out and about,” Powers said. “Chronic wasting disease of deer and elk we see in the fall because people are hunting. It’s voluntary for the hunters – they want to check if the animals are infected.”

Most cases come to the diagnostic laboratory through referring veterinarians across Colorado or ranchers and farmers who are familiar with the lab

A summary of what CSU veterinarians diagnosed between June 1 and Sept. 25:

• Anthrax (cattle) – 31 tested, 7 positive
• Rabies (bats, skunks, bison and raccoons) – 253 tested, 29 positive
• Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (cattle and yak) – 59 tested, 16 positive
• Avian flu (birds) – 694 tested, 0 positive
• Plague (wildlife and pets) – 10 tested, 2 positive
• Tularemia (wildlife) – 7 tested, 1 positive
• Piroplasmosis (horses) – 150 tested, 0 positive

In August, Dr. Hana Van Campen, a veterinary diagnostician at CSU, diagnosed the first case of epizootic hemorrhagic disease ever officially found in yaks. The disease is carried by midges. In Colorado, it’s typically found in deer.

“This category of viruses is in the same group as bluetongue virus but it has a cousin called epizootic hemorrhagic disease,” Van Campen said. “It’s actually likely here every year and likely it’s in many different animals. Certain species seem to be more sensitive – the animals get a high temperature, they may or may not show hemorrhage and they frequently die. It’s been a bad year across the country for this disease, especially in deer.”

The diagnostic laboratory also houses the testing services for avian flu in poultry and wild birds for the entire state – services provided by Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, who has been particularly busy with the growing interest in backyard poultry operations.

As part of its service to the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, as well as veterinarians around the nation and as far away as Canada and Japan, the veterinary pathologists in the diagnostic laboratory evaluate more than 100 biopsy samples a day from dogs and cats with a wide variety of diseases but often with cancer. This allows the veterinary clinicians to appropriately treat their patients with the most up to date treatments to prolong quality life. Sometimes treating these pets with cancer can give insight into new treatment modalities in humans.