“Organizational silos,” and how they prevent effective zoonotic disease tracking

It appears that the agencies that we rely on to track disease outbreaks need to start tracking disease, not just their own jurisdiction.

An article in Sociology of Health and Illness piqued my interest this last week that reveals the amount of segregation different government agencies have when dealing with zoonotic disease. The understanding of the goals and connections between livestock, wildlife, and human health among these agencies are often apathetic at best, and antagonistic at worst.

The author of the article took it upon himself to interview several government agencies with different species and regional jurisdictions, and was able to reveal what he calls “organizational silos” that develop when the values and cultures of these different agencies prevent them from working with outside groups. When attempting to monitor emerging infectious disease (EID), identification of cross-species movement is critical to predicting and preventing pandemics. Unfortunately, while they may be able to acknowledge the geographical movement of EID’s, many organizations are blinded by their specific oversight of humans or animals.

Copied from the article: Diagram showing the crossover between domestic animals, wildlife, and human EID. Important emergence factors for each circle are listed on the outside.

There are many telling comments contained in his interviews, and I encourage you to read the article to get the whole scope of the problem, but I’ve chosen to list a few of my favorites here:

From the Director of Animal Health Division at a state Department of Agriculture:

“‘We got a positive [flu result] on one of our routine surveillance tests’ of a poultry farm, Spencer complained, and ‘we were required to contact the USDA right away because of the pandemic Asian strain’. Spencer added, ‘It seems a little silly because there was no clinical illness on the property, and the strain came back something pretty common…’ In Spencer’s eyes, it was ‘hard to justify’ reporting the flu strain to the USDA… These days, Spencer said he passes on information about disease events to the state DOH and leaves it to them to tell local health boards. ‘If somebody screws up’, he shrugged, ‘at least we can blame the [Department of Health]’.”

Not an uncommon perspective for many organizations, or even coworkers! Let’s hear from another director at the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS):

 “Clinton argued that the ‘single biggest threat for disease’ comes from ‘wildlife intermingling with domestic livestock’. He told me, ‘You can’t control the birds’ and he rightly pointed out that ducks are flu incubators. If the bird flu – which Clinton called the top priority of his agency – becomes pandemic in humans, he told me, it will come from waterfowl.”

Interesting, I might argue that we have much more interaction with domestic fowl (can’t remember the last time I handled a wild duck), but let’s see what others had to say about this viewpoint.

“Nina Marano, a zoonotic disease expert at the CDC, told me that ‘most of the outbreaks have occurred through interaction with domestic poultry’. Another example: though poultry farmers singled out wild birds called cattle egrets as the source of a 2004 flu outbreak in California, the egrets tested negative – it turned out that contaminated egg containers circulating between farms were the culprit (McNeil 2004).”

Finally, one last example of how a zoonotic disease often isn’t treated as such by human health agencies. From a Director of the Infectious Disease Bureau of a city Public Health Commission:

“When I asked Sanders to describe a zoonose that she responded to, she mentioned a recent outbreak of salmonella…and she believed that the pathogen came from two live poultry markets in Chinatown. What I found telling was that, in Sanders’ lengthy discussion of this outbreak, she did not mention any communication with veterinary medicine agencies.While the Disease Bureau’s response to salmonella followed protocol, it did not turn to the Department of Agriculture, the USDA, or any other agencies involved in animal health for help or information. Nor did it share information with them.”

Clearly here the city health board considered this a food safety issue, but payed no attention to the implications of getting meat from an approved source (a domain which definitely belongs to the USDA), or the fact that other agriculture agencies may be interested in a salmonella outbreak. There are many other telling quotes within these interviews, and I again encourage you to check out the article.

The author of the study concludes that the only examples we get of harmonious collaboration are for those diseases which are in the public eye such as rabies and influenza (H5N1 and H1N1), though we still have lines drawn even when the public is asking for action (“‘we have enough H1N1 to worry about without worrying about turkeys’. He
concluded that turkey infection is ‘a Department of Agriculture issue’”). The most shining example of the failure to communicate by these institutions in the article is the discovery of Bird Flu in the US.

The first human cases of H5N1 in the US were wrongly diagnosed with St. Louis encephalitis, resulting in the deaths of 3 patients. A veterinary pathologist at the Bronx zoo observed neurological symptoms in some of the zoo’s birds and suspected a link, however encephalitis would not have killed her birds. Both the CDC and local DOH would not accept new information from her, instead keeping the encephalitis diagnosis. She then sent specimens to a friend at an Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who revealed the etiology of the disease and I’m sure had a hilarious conversation with the CDC and DOH (could you please explain to us why this veterinarian is doing your job casually on the side, and doing it better?). By the time the CDC received/accepted this information, H5N1 was endemic in the area.

Nothing against the CDC, it’s a fantastic organization, but this highlights the closed lines of communication that exist between human and animal agencies the author discusses. In order to prevent the next EID crisis, rigorous epidemiology is critical. Refusing to acknowledge the importance of cross-species movement to the virulence and emergence of a disease that falls under your agency does not only prevent you from identifying the next source of infection, but leaves you with nothing but reactive measures catered to a epidemic that you refuse to fully appreciate.


Jerolmack, C. (2012). Who’s worried about turkeys? How ‘organisational silos’ impede zoonotic disease surveillance Sociology of Health & Illness DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2012.01501.x

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