Livestock operators can no longer rely on the federal government to help out when there is an outbreak of anthrax.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has suspended all of its anthrax control activities, including such work as vaccinating animals and handling the quarantine of farms and disposal of animals when an outbreak has taken place.

In 2006, anthrax outbreaks led to the loss of more than 800 animals on 150 farms and ranches in Saskatchewan. Another 130 animals died in Manitoba. It was the worst outbreak in 55 years of record keeping.

What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a lethal bacterial disease that affects mammals, especially herbivores. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses are particularly susceptible.

The disease can be spread to humans, but experts say it is rare when contaminated carcasses are handled properly.

The naturally occurring bacteria that causes anthrax grows rapidly under wet conditions. When the soil dries, the spores are easily dislodged and infect the animals as they graze.

The ending of federal government activities related to anthrax has led to some concerns.

Gilbert Provencher has about 1,000 cattle and bison on his ranch north of Prince Albert, Sask.

He says an anthrax outbreak is comparable to a natural disaster.

"If you have a major hurricane, like they did in Oklahoma where the town is taken apart, the government is going to come in and help us, and the CFIA is going to be the same way," Provencher said.

But Dr. Penny Greenwood, who is in charge of domestic disease control for the CFIA, notes anthrax is a preventable disease.

Greenwood says farmers can vaccinate herds for around $2 per animal.

"This is not a disease that spreads animal to animal, and it is not one that is taken farm to farm by people," Greenwood told CBC News. "So really if you have a producer that doesn't vaccinate and they get anthrax, the only person they're going to be hurting is themselves."

One role of the CFIA, during an outbreak of anthrax, was to oversee the destruction of diseased carcasses.

That is something some veterinarians in Saskatchewan say should have been kept.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger does animal autopsies and notes that humans can become infected with anthrax by improper handling of dead animals or by inhaling anthrax spores from carcasses.

Safe disposal, she says, requires strict supervision.

"If it's not done properly, there's a human potential to be exposed," Rothenburger said. "There's also the risk that the carcasses will further contaminate the environment, if they're not disposed of properly."

Some of the work relating to anthrax will fall to provincial officials.

Dr. Betty Althouse, Saskatchewan's chief veterinary officer, says the province may provide some laboratory support.

Anthrax work ended

According to a notice dated April 5, 2013, effective April 1, the CFIA no longer:

  • Investigates and quarantines anthrax-infected premises.
  • Collects and submits samples for testing.
  • Performs anthrax testing.
  • Provides an initial dose of anthrax vaccine for affected herds.
  • Oversees carcass disposal, cleaning and disinfection.
  • Pays an indemnity to help cover the cost of disposing of animal carcasses.

"We'll cover the cost of the lab diagnosis for the actual anthrax diagnostic part," Althouse said. "So that will help, I think, encourage producers to get the diagnosis done and confirmed so they will find out when anthrax occurs."

Dr. Greg Fedusiak, a veterinarian in Foam Lake, Sask., recalls the outbreak in 2006 when 24 herds in his area were affected.

He has mixed views of the changes at CFIA.

"The impact is good and bad," Fedusiak said. "I think some of the stuff was overdone by the CFIA where they'd give free vaccines and free vaccinations."

Fedusiak said animal producers should be responsible for vaccinations.

However, he is also concerned about safe handling of infected animals.

"One of the bad aspects is that the CFIA used to come in and do disease control and disposal of carcasses to stop the further spread of the disease," He said. "[They would] help the farmer through this crisis, and I don't know who is going to pick that up when new cases start arriving."

Fedusiak said a significant outbreak with no federal support could be a challenge.

"If we're handling an anthrax outbreak ... our resources are limited as to how much time we can spend at each farm," he said. "If we had another 2006 happen, we would notice the absence of CFIA."

According to federal officials, cases of anthrax must still be reported by producers.

The government said ending the CFIA's involvement with anthrax was done to "modernize Canada’s approach to managing animal diseases."

 

With files from CBC's Bonnie Allen