NEW EYE CAST ON UNUSUAL DISEASES



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Last Updated

20 Apr 2003

Source: Boston Globe, April 20, 2003

New eye cast on unusual diseases

Veterinarians key in terrorism fight

By Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press

Veterinarians are considered key to government surveillance systems being devised to detect unusual patterns of animal disease that could signal an outbreak, whether naturally occurring or intentional.

These doctors are ''on the front lines of detection of biological weapons of mass destruction,'' US Surgeon General Richard Carmona recently told veterinarians at a training session in Florida.

The Agriculture Department has trained hundreds of veterinarians to diagnose animal diseases that are found in other parts of the world but are rare or nonexistent in the United States.

They are being asked to watch for diseases that can be passed from animals to humans, such as anthrax, plague, and tularemia, as well as those that could be used by terrorists, including swine fever, avian flu, and foot-and-mouth disease.

In February, veterinarians joined top Bush administration officials, FBI representatives, and 15 members of Congress at Washington's National Defense University for ''Silent Prairie,'' a simulated terrorist attack involving foot-and-mouth disease, the malady that led to the slaughter of millions of farm animals in Britain in 2001.

That epidemic served as a wake-up call to US health officials, who realized ''how unprepared we would be for something of that magnitude,'' said Dr. Gary Smith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also raised fears that terrorists could easily sabotage the nation's food supply with biological agents.

Dr. John Maxwell, who received training from the USDA in the diagnosis of rare animal diseases, said veterinarians need to be alert for anything out of the ordinary.

''We're not exactly out there looking for anthrax, but . . . we're all medically trained and we can all be sentinel veterinarians by just doing our jobs,'' said Maxwell, who practices at North Penn Animal Hospital outside Philadelphia.

An unusually high number of cases of bovine anthrax, or anthrax that appears out of season or in places where it is not endemic, could be a sign of bioterrorism, said Dr. Radford Davis, assistant director of Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health.

''Or a cat diagnosed with plague in Florida and the cat never left Florida. That's news because plague is limited to the Southwest,'' he said.

In Orlando, Fla., a January training session on zoonotic diseases, those that can be passed from animals to humans, drew 125 veterinarians from 46 states and Puerto Rico. Those veterinarians went back home and began training colleagues.

The Agriculture Department has asked for an additional $47 million this year to strengthen a federal and state government network of response to bioterrorism and animal disease outbreaks, as well as $23 million for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The inspection service trains federal, state, military, and private veterinarians how to respond to suspected cases of foreign animal disease. The goal is to prevent a catastrophic outbreak.

''The sooner we can detect a foreign animal disease, quarantine it, and shut down the movement of livestock, the sooner we will be able to contain it,'' said Bobby Acord, administrator of the inspection service.