PETS MAY BE FIRST BIOTERRORISM ALERT



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Last Updated

04 Apr 2003

Source: USA Today, April 4, 2003

Pets may be first bioterrorism alert

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Do you remember how Lassie would alert her human family to dangers only she could detect?

Our dogs and cats may come to the rescue in the same way if the nation is attacked with slow-acting biological or chemical agents.

A national pet health surveillance database is being set up by veterinarians at Purdue University in Indiana to serve as an early warning of such an attack.

Pets are as likely as people to be affected by most chemical or biological agents. But unlike people, many are likely to be seen by veterinarians who are part of a centralized, standardized medical system.

This would make it easy to quickly collect information that might indicate an outbreak precious days before it would become apparent in the human population.

The early-warning system takes advantage of the national network of Banfield veterinary hospitals. The chain has 310 hospitals in 43 states, many in Petsmart stores.

Banfield vets see an estimated 1% to 2% of the nation's cats and dogs, about 2.5 million a year.

The chain's hospitals and clinics all use the same computer programs and data systems, which are backed up weekly to a central computer at headquarters in Portland, Ore.

That database is a gold mine for epidemiologists, the scientists who track disease outbreaks, says Larry Glickman, a professor of epidemiology and environmental medicine at Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Glickman had planned to use the database to see whether animals could be used as sentinels for environmental health hazards implicated in cancer. Animals develop the same cancers as people but in much shorter time periods.

After Sept. 11, "suddenly everyone was scrambling for an early-detection system, so we just expanded the concept to biologic and chemical agents and the acute effects they might have on animals," he says.

The researchers applied for a grant for the project. They didn't get it, but they felt so strongly about the project that they continued anyway.

On the government's list of high-threat biological agents, only smallpox doesn't affect dogs and cats, Glickman says.

"Anthrax, plague, tularemia all affect animals in the same way they do humans," he says. But animals might feel the effects more quickly because they are smaller.

The Purdue researchers are developing software that will allow them to review the Banfield data to look for unusual clusters of symptoms. They hope to have it running by the end of the year.

A syndrome of paralysis and eventual death in pets from just one state could be botulism poisoning or nerve gas.

A sudden outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea could mean salmonella had gotten into the food supply. It also could mean an outbreak of coronavirus or a chemical agent.

Or it might be as simple as an unusually high concentration of coughs among dogs in a particular geographical area.

To figure out whether symptoms were a disease or just air pollution, the Purdue veterinary group would contact the vets at the animal hospitals to take samples. If the samples raised enough alarm, the group would send a team, Glickman says.

The key is access to clinical information, says Banfield's Hugh Lewis, former dean of Purdue's veterinary school. "If you wait for a diagnosis to occur, it's too late. You need something that's going to detect early clinical changes."

Epidemiology looks at populations, which can be hard with people because medical centers and hospitals aren't linked.

Even if 10 people in the same city were to get sick simultaneously, they might each go to a different doctor, and the severity of the outbreak wouldn't be clear until those doctors updated local health officials.

"If it's one occurring here and one occurring there, it's very difficult to see the big picture. But if you're looking at a population, if a half a dozen appear, you can see it's a hot spot," Lewis says.

Because Banfield's database is so large, it's more likely to detect hotspots early.

"It could be happening in humans, but people wouldn't be able to put two and two together as quickly," Lewis says.

There also isn't any comparable national medical database for humans, says Tracee Treadwell, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control's Office of Bioterrorism Preparedness. "If you have 100 different hospitals you have 100 hospital information systems, and they don't all talk the same language." Treadwell is consulting with Purdue on the design of the system.

Not to mention patient privacy, which is not a concern with cats and dogs.

And "quite frankly, when you go to the emergency room, the last thing on the doctor's mind is entering data into a computer," Glickman says.

The Banfield database isn't the only way animals might help in case of terrorist attack. The Office of Bioterrorism Preparedness is considering reviewing information from veterinary diagnostic laboratories nationwide and is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to survey wildlife populations for unexplained deaths.