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Animal disease expert finds international calling

News Release Distributed 11/14/14

BATON ROUGE, La. – When bovine brucellosis was eradicated in the United States, it was a triumph for animal and veterinary scientists nationwide. LSU AgCenter scientist Phil Elzer was one of the researchers who had worked for years to create a vaccine for the bacterial disease, which devastates livestock and wildlife.

But eradication of brucellosis, which Elzer had spent much of his career studying, put him at a crossroads. The disease, and his research on it, was no longer of much interest in the U.S.

Elzer, now the AgCenter’s associate vice chancellor for animal sciences and natural resources, said things turned around in 1998 when he went to South Africa to attend an international conference.

There, he discovered brucellosis was – and still is – a concern in developing countries, where small ruminants like goats are a major food source. The disease causes decreased milk production and abortions in animals, and it can be contracted by humans, too.

“In the U.S, we thought about it as an economic problem because it harmed production,” Elzer said. “But humans are very susceptible hosts, and it’s very prevalent in other places.”

That 1998 conference marked the beginning of Elzer’s international work, which has since taken him to so many countries that he’s had to add pages to his passport book. It wasn’t long before Elzer began attending NATO conferences and became a NATO subject matter expert on brucellosis.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and terms like “weapons of mass destruction” entered the mainstream American vocabulary.

“Brucellosis was part of that arsenal of weapons,” Elzer said. As the expert, he was sent to Kazakhstan and other former Soviet Union countries to help find biological weapons.

“You started realizing there were other parts of the world that wanted to harm us,” Elzer said. “Then we started to wonder why. But these people were just doing their job. So we asked, ‘can we engage them and teach them how to use microbiology for good?’ There’s a lot of good that can be done with that expertise.”

Today, some of those foreign scientists are partners on research projects and even friends. Elzer, speaking at the AgCenter’s Nov. 13 Global Agriculture Hour, said he believes international cooperation is key to solving problems like brucellosis, food insecurity and access to clean water.

American land-grant universities like LSU have a unique advantage to help people around the world, he said. The LSU AgCenter, for example, frequently hosts faculty and students from foreign universities to train them and form research agreements.

“We should be very proud as a country that we have safe food and water resources,” Elzer said. “We are a country of plentiful things. People are just amazed when they get here that we do what we do.”

At the same time, Elzer has been amazed at some of what he’s seen on his travels – which he points out are work, not vacations. Staying in hotels that don’t have running water is often part of the job.

It can also be difficult to keep up with the news if an English-language channel isn’t available on television.

“I was in the Republic of Georgia one time, and Russia invaded,” Elzer said. “It’s amazing all the things that can happen. But I have never regretted one of those things in my life.”

Some things are a little strange, though. At the South African conference, another scientist hid behind Elzer as a pack of monkeys leapt toward them.

A meal in a yurt in Kazakhstan featured a boiled horse head as the main dish. Tradition dictates that the guest of honor – Elzer, in this case – is served the right eyeball of the horse.

“You learn to cover some things with napkins,” Elzer said. But he’s joking – he strongly believes that an open mind is critical when working with people from other countries. To help them with their problems, it is important to learn about their culture, too.

“Try to have understanding and be a good citizen,” Elzer said. “You never know what will come back to you scientifically and personally.”

Olivia McClure

Last Updated: 11/14/2014 3:37:14 PM

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