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One Health Strategies Help a Farm Family Navigate a “Winter from Hell” ▶️

For Tyler and Nancy Haraga, March 10, 2018, will forever stand out in their minds.

“It was forty below with four to five feet of snow,” recalls Tyler. It had been a brutal winter, with unrelenting cold and record snowfall that persisted into March and spring simply refused to come. 

In order to give their expected calves a fighting chance against the cold, the Haragas brought in heavy equipment to clear snow off a large area and packed it with clean, dry straw. (0:16)

the Haraga Ranch in Skiff, Alberta, Canada
The Haraga Ranch in Skiff, Alberta

As the cold continued and the calves began to come, Tyler started to notice a few sick calves.There were a couple with scours, and we never have had scours,” says Tyler, who attributed it to the unusually harsh conditions.

At first, the calves seemed to respond to treatment, but as more calves hit the ground, Tyler realized there was a major problem. “We’ve got a wreck,” he said to Nancy, who was home caring for their children nearly three miles from the farm site. 

As the sick calves kept piling up, they had nearly 40 calves on IV therapy at one time. “It was physically and mentally draining. We were so tired, so depressed,” says Tyler, who along with his father, worked around the clock to save as many animals as they could.

Recognize the symptoms of mental fatigue, and seek support when needed.

Source: Preparing the Alberta Beef Sector for Disease-Related Sector-Wide Emergencies: Producer Handbook

Seeking Expertise

Despite the numerous offers of help from friends and neighbors, the Haragas were worried that the problem was potentially contagious and didn’t want to risk passing it on to neighbouring operations. “There’s no point in devastating the entire country with it,” explained Nancy.  

Despite the stress the Haragas showed resilience and forward-thinking, seeking out options through the Diagnostic Services Unit (DSU) at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM). (1:59)

“We have two different ways we can help, says Dr. Lindsay Rogers, program outreach coordinator of the DSU at UCVM. “One way is with diagnostics and the other way is with veterinarians and animal health experts that can go out on farm.” (2:41)

The DSU works in cooperation with the local attending veterinarian to help in cases where further investigations are required beyond what the local practitioner is able to provide. 

veterinary pathologists at Diagnostic Services Unit, University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
Veterinary pathologists at the Diagnostics Services Unit at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine diagnosed the Cryptosporidium outbreak at the Haraga Ranch.

In the Haragas’ case, the DSU diagnosed the fast-acting pathogen infecting their calves as Cryptosporidium, or “crypto” for short. Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that has a tough outer shell making it very durable in harsh conditions. The parasite spreads through contact with infected animal feces or contaminated water sources. (3:19)

It only takes a tiny little speck to touch that new baby and they’re infected,” notes Nancy. 

We were creating a haven for it to spread,” Tyler Haraga says, referring to the Cryptosporidium parasite present in the bedding pack they had created for their newborn calves. 

By the time the Haragas had a diagnosis, the environment was already saturated with Cryptosporidium. For that year’s calf crop, supportive care and quickly moving the naïve calves and pregnant cows as far away from that straw pack as possible was the best action to take. 

While it is distressing that lag time in testing causes an illness to spread, getting a correct diagnosis is pivotal. “We are able to do things to help prevent infection in subsequent years in that herd,” says Dr. Jennifer Davis, a veterinary pathologist at UCVM. (3:05)

Once the diagnosis is made, the DSU team can work with the producer and their veterinarian to help make plans for the present outbreak and future management of the herd.  

The Spread of a Zoonotic Disease

Cryptosporidium, like many scour-causing pathogens, is a “zoonotic” disease, meaning the pathogen can infect both animals and human hosts, transmitting from one to another. “As a pathologist, if I diagnose a case of Cryptosporidium in a scouring calf, I’m then making a comment in my note back to the veterinarian: ‘This is a zoonotic disease so if you, or other people such as the producer, have come into contact with these calves and are experiencing any illness it is important to seek medical care and to let them know about the potential exposure’,” says Dr Jennifer Davies. 

The potential for exposure for the Haraga family was high, and the entire family was at risk. So, when their 8-year-old son began showing symptoms, it was no surprise to the Haragas that one of them had fallen ill to the highly contagious zoonotic pathogen. (4:01) “He couldn’t stand, he was in the fetal position because there was so much pain in his stomach,” says Nancy, recalling the day she rushed her son into urgent care.  

“We were living and breathing this stuff for three straight weeks,” says Tyler Haraga, referring to the Cryptosporidium pathogen.

When a zoonotic disease is identified in a human, Public Health becomes involved to help identify the origin and prevent possible spread of that disease within the population. “We will help support the producer with strategies and management techniques to try and prevent additional transmission,” explains Theron White, disease control coordinator with Environmental Public Health at Alberta Health Services. (5:06)

In the case of the Haragas, the veterinary team, the DSU and Public Health all worked together in what is now known as the “One Health Initiative”. This model of care has all interested parties working as one in a well-connected cluster of resources, each acknowledging the importance of each other to achieve a common goal. “The One Health Initiative is the understanding that human health, environmental health and animal health are all intricately connected, and we can no longer put each of those in a silo,” says Dr. Rogers. (4:51)

Biosecurity Protocols

In the aftermath of this devastating outbreak, many lessons were learned. For example, the Haraga family has become very conscious of where their boots have been and what they may be bringing home. “We have definitely become more aware; our kids have become more aware,” says Nancy. (6:40)

They may never know how the pathogen arrived at their farm, but by having a solid biosecurity plan, they can do their best to ensure other diseases cannot follow suit. As for the herd, they know that Cryptosporidium has the potential to resurface if conditions are right, so they have a bio management plan which includes a strategy to ensure this doesn’t happen again. 

This interactive graphic illustrates some common ways a herd becomes open, allowing disease to enter.

do you think you have a closed herd?

Hover over the red pushpins below for specific protocols for each biosecurity area.

One strategy they have implemented since the outbreak is a spring calving program. (6:54) When asked about the results of this decision Tyler says, “Cows are calved out on grass and they get up bouncing.” Tyler and Nancy will never be able to recover the genetics lost in the outbreak. The financial burden of wrecks like this is often felt for years. However, the Haragas family’s cooperation with a One Health approach, including human and veterinary diagnostics teams to create a plan and prevention strategy as well as their willingness to share their experience, has been a silver lining. 

“Don’t be afraid to talk about it,” offers Nancy as her closing advice. “You should be talking about it, because somebody somewhere has gone through it and they’re going to know someone who can help you.” 

A special thanks goes to Dr. Jen Davies, Dr. Lindsay Rogers, Dr. Eugene Janzen, Dr. Vivien Suttorp, Theron White, and Nancy and Tyler Haraga for their collaboration and participation in this project. 

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