Veterinarians defend against bioterrorism

Mississippi veterinarians could find themselves on the front line of defense if the country were ever attacked by bioterrorists.

The Centers for Disease Control consider bioterrorism a significant public health threat facing the United States. In a program brief released online in January, the CDC said “the nation's public health infrastructure currently is not adequate to detect and respond to a bioterrorist event.” To better prepare, it has developed a Bioterrorism Program to promote the development of local, state and federal resources to address potential bioterrorism events.

Jim Watson, state veterinarian with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, said this general trend in state and federal government to be more prepared for possible bioterrorist activities pre-dates the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

“We're more dependent on imports and international trade than ever before,” Watson said. “As we depend more on imports, our risk is higher that an animal disease, whether intentional or accidental, would have a big economic impact on our country.”

Watson cited the February outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom and the devastating effects that incident had on their national economy.

“We feel very strongly that a private veterinarian would be the first line of defense and the first one to see a new disease,” Watson said of the introduction of a similar disease to the United States. “By knowing what's going on in the animal population, it may help alert us to what's going on in the human population.”

Watson said although no new efforts have begun since the terrorist attacks, Mississippi is developing an animal disaster response plan that will be part of the emergency management response to any disaster. Veterinarians are also being encouraged to be more vigilant in noting unusual groups of events, such as animal deaths, and in reporting these to the state.

“The diagnostic laboratory, veterinary school and practitioners are all equally important cogs in the wheel recognizing a problem early and relaying on that information,” Watson said.

Roger Easley, professor of pathobiology and population medicine at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said veterinarians are ideally equipped to help prevent bioterrorist activity. Easley is also a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard where he serves as a public health officer in a medical squadron.

“Veterinarians are involved in the food chain, communicable disease prevention and the education of animal owners,” Easley said. “We need to be on the lookout for foreign animal diseases that terrorists might try to introduce to our livestock.”

Easley agreed that highly contagious, foreign animal diseases could have a devastating impact on the nation's economy. Diseases that do not transmit to humans include foot-and-mouth disease, hog cholera and Rhinderpest. Other disease can affect both humans and animals.

Anthrax is a naturally occurring disease in animals that is typically not very contagious. Humans can contract it from a cut that contacts infected soil, and animals can get it from eating infected grass. However, anthrax can be a highly dangerous weapon when it is specifically prepared as particles that can float in the air.

“If anthrax were sprayed in an area, veterinarians would be in the forefront of identifying it as we would see the dead animals and recognize the signs of anthrax.”

No specific call to action concerning bioterrorism has been made to Mississippi veterinarians, but Easley said it is the profession's job to be vigilant. “Raise your antennae and be sensitive to what might be considered a terrorist event such as the appearance of an unusual disease or high animal mortality rates,” Easley said.

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

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