[ASC-media] Early warning system for emergency disease threats

Sarah Brooker sarah at scienceinpublic.com
Tue May 3 10:28:26 EST 2005

Australia takes the lead in cattle disease surveillance

Maffra vet Richard Shephard has created a new disease diagnosis tool for
farmers that will both help them manage their cattle herd from day to day,
and will collect evidence of Australia's freedom from diseases that could
affect our multi-billion dollar exports. 

The web-based system has successfully been piloted in Queensland's Gulf
Country and is ready for adoption by disease surveillance authorities across

It could transform the way that vets, stock inspectors, and farmers to work
together to protect the health of our national cattle herd.

"Australia will export $7 billion in beef and dairy products this year. And
our international customers value our disease-free status," says Shephard, a
research veterinarian with the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research

"This new system will give our farmers a sustainable competitive advantage,
and will provide early warning capability for emerging issues."

Cattle in northern Australia are infrequently seen by vets - due to the
tyranny of distance, and the shortage of rural veterinarians. 

"Australian cattle producers are used to dealing with large herds and are
highly attuned to normal cattle behaviour" he said. "This makes them very
sensitive to changes that occur when an animal becomes sick. But the biggest
problem is finding the rights words to describe the signs of disease that
they see."

The web system prompts the user to describe what they're seeing - using an
image of a cow. This image has links between individual organs and limbs to
common signs affecting that area of the body.

The program takes the basic signs and uses an artificial intelligence system
to identify the most likely causes from a database of around 1,000 diseases.
The process is fast and intuitive usually taking no more than two to three
minutes in most cases.

"This web tool allows producers to better manage their herd, and at the same
time, collect disease surveillance information that will provide evidence
for disease freedom, and in an emergency, trigger a warning, said Dr

"The results of Richard's work have been very encouraging," says Reuben
Rose, general manager livestock production innovation, Meat and Livestock
Australia (MLA). 

"This tool will allow farmers to help themselves, whilst also creating
national surveillance statistics that will give our customers even more
confidence in Australia's cattle products."  

MLA has supported Dr Shephard's work through their PhD scholarship program.
The Australian Biosecurity CRC has also supported the development of the
diagnosis tool.

"We are now presenting the system to state and federal authorities for
consideration," says Shephard. "Our hope is that all cattle producers will
be able to register with their local stock inspector for this free service
within a few years."  

Shephard's innovation has won him a place at Fresh Innovators-a national
initiative to bring the work of 16 early-career inventers to public
attention. After training in Sydney, the Innovators are talking to the
media, schools and business about their ideas. One of the 16 will win a
study tour to the UK courtesy of the British Council Australia.

For more information or interview contact: Richard Shephard (03) 5147 1633 /
0418 515 498

Media contacts for Fresh Innovators: Niall Byrne 0417 131 977 and Sarah
Brooker 0413 332 489

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