animal lab

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

In 2018, Virginia’s animal laboratory system gained certification to screen for Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD), a highly contagious and debilitating animal disease that could devastate the animal agriculture industry.

The Harrisonburg Regional Animal Health Laboratory, the state’s only member of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), received the designation. The lab joins the ranks of 45 total U.S. laboratories poised to identify and help contain the disease if it strikes domestic herds. While no cases of FMD have occurred in the United States since 1929, it exists in other parts of the world and is potentially devastating.

“Foot-and-Mouth Disease is supposedly the most contagious virus known to science,” says
Dr. Joe Garvin, program manager of the laboratory system for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). “If it gets in a population of livestock – like cattle, sheep, goats and pigs – it causes severe lameness and blisters in the feet and mouth, and is extremely debilitating. It would cause great economic damage to the U.S. animal agriculture industry. It is important to be prepared so we can respond as quickly as possible.”

Lab Preps for Rapid Response

While not a public health or a food-safety threat, FMD ranks of worldwide concern because it can quickly cause significant economic losses. Early detection at the Harrisonburg Regional Animal Health Laboratory can help contain the disease.

VDACS sought certification to test for FMD from the NAHLN to enhance its rapid response ability. The laboratory in Harrisonburg, based on its location and testing services for other diseases of economic importance, is the only member of the NAHLN among Virginia’s four state-owned animal laboratories. Harrisonburg is certified to also test for highly contagious, economically devastating diseases like avian influenza and Newcastle disease virus. Both diseases affect poultry, a significant industry in the Harrisonburg area.

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Like those poultry diseases, FMD demands a rapid response to contain the illness.

“If Foot-and-Mouth Disease broke out in one particular area of the U.S., the goal would be to snuff it out right there before it had a chance to spread,” Garvin says.

Certification Speaks to Lab’s Quality

Approval to test for FMD requires proof of the Harrisonburg Laboratory’s testing capability, the ability of employees to run such tests and a commitment to early detection of foreign animal diseases.

Lab technicians will use polymerase chain reaction testing to screen veterinary-provided samples for FMD. The National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa confirms a positive test.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s early warning gives regulators a jumpstart in a suspect case. That early warning could make a substantial difference in the effectiveness of the response in Virginia or elsewhere in the United States.


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