Last month in Atlanta, veterinarians sat alongside doctors, biologists and virologists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Eighth International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases. Increasingly, veterinarians are experts in disease surveillance and prevention and in diagnosing and reporting unusual illnesses before they become epidemics, said WSU associate professor Mushtaq Memon, who teaches Emerging and Exotic Diseases of Animals and invited Eldridge to speak to his class.

These days, all it takes is a slip in agricultural sanitation or a traveler from another country with a microbe on the bottom of his shoe to set off an outbreak, Memon said.

"Nothing is foreign anymore, which means we’re all in this together,” he said. "By the time our students become veterinarians, we want them to be able to identify emerging diseases and know how to respond to them.”

Q fever, for example, is caused by a bacterium that can pass to humans mostly from goats, cattle and sheep. In animals, it can go unnoticed until pregnant females abort or deliver stillborns.

But in humans, it causes flu-like symptoms and, in rare cases, can be fatal, Eldridge told the students.

First recognized in Australia in the mid-1930s, Q fever appeared in the U.S. just a few years later. Last spring, seven ill people in Washington state were diagnosed with it.

"It’s here, folks,” said Eldridge, while holding his index finger in the air. "All it takes is one organism to make an animal or person sick.”

Working closely with the CDC and WSU, Eldridge traced the outbreak’s source to a Grant County ranch that breeds and sells goats; he then moved quickly to quarantine the animals at the 13 farms where they were sold. The people infected were treated with antibiotics and recovered.

Influenza in flight

So far, no birds in North America have tested positive for the deadly form of avian influenza, A-H5N1, but milder strains are showing up in migratory birds such as the northern pintail, Eldridge told the class. Though not dangerous, the virus is being closely monitored in case it mutates into something more virulent.

"We know from studying their migration patterns that our birds, namely pintails, associate with wild birds in Eurasia,” where H5N1 is most prevalent, he said.

Since 2003, H5N1has killed more than 50 percent of the 602 people infected with it in Asia, Europe and Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Eldridge made it clear to students that when it comes to disease-causing pathogens, veterinarians can’t play chicken.

"Always remember,” he said, "Early identification; quick containment.”