New Vet Diagnostic Center would serve agriculture, protect public health

Ronnie Green
Ronnie Green

By Ronnie D. Green
University of Nebraska vice president
and Harlan vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources

One of the most important ways the State of Nebraska serves the public good is through the University of Nebraska's Veterinary Diagnostic Center. Working with government agencies, the state's veterinarians, the livestock industry, companion animal owners, and the animal health industry, the Veterinary Diagnostic Center works to serve and protect both animal and human health in Nebraska.

The Veterinary Diagnostic Center, based at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Lincoln, provides accurate and timely diagnosis of livestock diseases, including many that can be transmitted to humans. Diseases that come through the center's doors include anthrax, tularemia, avian influenza, West Nile virus, H1N1 flu and more. The center improves animal and public health through disease surveillance. It develops new, cutting-edge testing methods. It supports food safety and biomedical research.

The center also helps educate future veterinarians and scientists.

Built in 1975, the Veterinary Diagnostic Center has served Nebraskans well. But it is aging and insufficient to meet today's, to say nothing of future needs. The center's shortcomings include a poor ventilation system and building design that carries increased risk for cross contamination of contagious pathogens and increased risk of pathogen exposure of the laboratory workforce. Certain areas of the building also do not meet ADA standards for accessibility.

These are not minor flaws. It is essential they be addressed as soon as possible.

The center has been on provisional accreditation by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians Inc. in the past and now faces that possibility again. Unless we demonstrate a good-faith effort to correct the deficiencies, we risk losing accreditation altogether.

Loss of accreditation would carry significant consequences for Nebraska. It would limit the state's ability to respond to disease outbreaks and the University's ability to perform regulatory diagnostic testing. In fact, the state of Nebraska cannot conduct testing at a non-accredited lab. We would be less competitive in retaining and hiring high-quality faculty and staff and have fewer opportunities to obtain federal grants and contracts such as the $25 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for research on dangerous strains of E. coli announced last month.

Less tangible, but no less important, is the matter of consumer and producer confidence that Nebraska and its land-grant university can diagnose and help fight serious, sometimes fatal, diseases that affect both livestock and humans. This is both an economic and public health issue.

It is important to note that because of budget cuts a decade ago, the Veterinary Diagnostic Center is the only center of its kind in Nebraska. Much of its testing for diseases is at the state's behest; therefore, the state has a responsibility to ensure that it is adequately funded to meet the needs of Nebraskans. Furthermore, having a high-quality Veterinary Diagnostic Center in our state is deemed essential by industry and organizational leaders throughout the state.

For these reasons, the University of Nebraska has asked the Legislature for $5 million to plan and design a new Veterinary Diagnostic Center on UNL's East Campus. This request is one component of a multi-part initiative the University has proposed to help address a number of critical health needs in Nebraska.

We acknowledge this is a significant request, and we do not make it lightly. Certainly there are many competing priorities for funding this year. But consider the ramifications of not moving ahead on a new Veterinary Diagnostic Center to serve Nebraska. Surely we have sufficient vision – and, in my view, funding as well – to invest in a project that will continue to protect the economic health of the state's No. 1 industry, not to mention the health of Nebraskans themselves.

Fiscal prudence requires knowing when and where to make crucial investments for a healthier and economically stronger Nebraska.

This is one of those times, and this is one of those projects.