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From: TSS (
Subject: Ottawa mishandled mad-cow crisis review: Poor planning, staffing and communication slammed
Date: November 26, 2004 at 11:59 am PST

Ottawa mishandled mad-cow crisis
review: Poor planning, staffing and communication slammed

Chad Skelton
Vancouver Sun

Thursday, November 25, 2004

The federal government's response to last year's mad-cow crisis was plagued by poor planning, staffing problems and inadequate information-sharing, according to an internal review obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

While the review concludes that none of those problems affected the government's investigation of the infected Alberta cow discovered in May, 2003, it warns they likely would have if the crisis had got any worse.

"If the emergency had been more complex, or if it had had a higher potential risk to human health, the agency would not have been ready to scale up to a higher level of response immediately," the review states.

The review, completed for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Dec. 10, 2003 by an outside consultant, warned that if the CFIA didn't take steps to fix some of the problems identified, they "could undermine CFIA's ability to respond to more complex or time-critical emergencies" -- raising questions about the agency's handling of last spring's avian-flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley.

The CFIA BSE Emergency Response Assessment Report, obtained by The Sun under the Access to Information Act, was written several months after the cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in Alberta, but before an Alberta-born cow with BSE was discovered in Washington state in late-December.

The assessment concludes that, in general, the CFIA's response to the BSE crisis was a success. But it highlights several areas of concern:

- While the CFIA had declared an agency-wide emergency to respond to the BSE crisis, it did a poor job of communicating that -- even to its own staff. As a result, several months after the emergency response, many staff believed that an emergency had not been declared.

- Dr. Brian Evans, the CFIA's chief veterinary officer, was designated as the agency's spokesman on BSE, despite a standing policy not to assign spokesperson duties to someone with critical responsibilities. "As a result, some key activities were not taken or were not completed on time," the review states.

- In the early days of the crisis, the only way for CFIA staff to get reliable information was to attend meetings or conference calls. "Since meetings were the most reliable source of information in the earliest days of the emergency response, so many people were attending the meetings that effective decision-making at the meetings was not possible," the review concludes.

- The startup of an emergency operations centre in Ottawa to handle the BSE crisis was delayed, leading to confusion in procedures for obtaining decisions and in communicating decisions to those who needed them.

- The emergency operations centre itself had poor air quality and an unreliable power source that caused computers to fail, making it necessary to use other facilities to meet the deadline for preparing a briefing package.

- There was no plan in place to provide backup staffing. "Primary response participants were exhausted by the end of the response period and a longer response could not have been sustained with the same staff," the report states.

In general, the report concluded, problems with communications and information-sharing meant that "time that should have been spent focusing on the emergency response was spent on developing communications procedures and tools instead."

The report makes 23 recommendations, including upgrading emergency operations facilities and rotating emergency response staff.

Harry Gardiner, an official in the CFIA's office of emergency management, said he couldn't say how many of those recommendations have been acted upon by the agency.

He said more details on the agency's response to the report won't be made available until a final, public report on the CFIA's handling of the crisis is made public later this year.

The CFIA is still conducting a review of its handling of this spring's avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley. However, there are already signs that similar problems of disorganization and poor communication may have surfaced in its response to that crisis.

An e-mail sent from B.C.'s deputy agriculture minister Rory McAlpine to CFIA president Dick Fadden last April indicates B.C. had several concerns with the federal agency's handling of avian flu.

"I need to confidentially flag a few operation issues," McAlpine wrote in the e-mail, obtained by The Sun this month under the Access to Information Act.

The e-mail went on to note several concerns, including a lack of information from the agency.

"Neither we nor industry is getting a daily situation report from CFIA to confirm new positives, status of flock depopulations, etc.," McAlpine wrote. "In absence of this rumours [mostly false] churn constantly."

The e-mail also noted that "for several days industry, our CDC [centre for disease control], municipal authorities and private vets have been asking what is the sample rate/confidence levels to establish whether a flock is AI [avian influenza] negative. Still no answers."

McAlpine warned Fadden that "decisive leadership is still not evident on the ground" and that "the tremendous goodwill and support that industry has shown ... is rapidly evaporating."

McAlpine isn't the only one who has expressed concern about the CFIA's handling of the avian flu crisis.

In an interview with The Sun in August, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said breaches in biosecurity -- such as workers improperly trained on safety procedures -- raised the risk of possible human infection.

"Initially, in trying to deal with the outbreak, I'm not sure that we were using as much of the protection as ... we could have been," said Kendall.

The Sun also reported in August that an internal report written by an infectious disease expert with Health Canada warned that poor training and delays in disposing of dead birds during the avian flu outbreak increased the risk of human infection.

"At an on-site visit to an affected farm on Friday, April 9, I observed fluids leaking from the boxes containing the chicken carcasses with flies swarming around the fluids on the ground in the farmyard," wrote infection control nurse Linda Kingsbury.

"An assessment of the risk of transmission to humans of the avian influenza virus and other pathogens due to the delay in disposal of a large amount of dead and decaying chickens should be carried out."


An internal review of the federal government's handling of last year's mad-cow crisis identified several problems, including:

Inspection agency declared an agency-wide emergency - but many of its own staff weren't informed of it.

Agency's chief spokesman was also a senior veterinarian with other key responsibilities to juggle.

When staff should have been responding to the emergency, they were developing communications procedures and tools instead.

Ran with fact box "Key Problems", which has been appended tothe end of the story.
© The Vancouver Sun 2004


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