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Animal docs fill homeland security slots

In the war on terrorism an unlikely recruit, the veterinarian,  is quietly serving homeland security needs.  Vets, in their day-to-day duties, on farms and  in the field, are acting as a kind of early warning system to detect agro or bio-terrorism events.
A cattle carcass in the United Kingdom is lowered onto a pyre covered in slaughtered livestock to be burned in 2001 because of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.  Millions of cows were killed and the economy was damaged.
A cattle carcass in the United Kingdom is lowered onto a pyre covered in slaughtered livestock to be burned in 2001 because of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.  Millions of cows were killed and the economy was damaged.Max Nash / AP file
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Are chickens a terrorist threat?  How about cows, pigs or sheep? Such questions could easily veer into tongue-in-cheek answers suitable for late-night TV monologues, but in the world of homeland security they are deadly serious.

There are 31 recorded cases of agro-terrorism in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Database, 10 of them directed at livestock, according to the Journal of Animal Science. Concern about a terrorist strike against the nation’s food supply spiked when al-Qaida documents found in a cave in Afghanistan suggested that terrorists considered ways to introduce contaminants into the food supply.

"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a December speech as he was stepping down from the post.

Concern about intentional animal-born disease outbreaks as acts of terrorism have been around for years. But the placing of agriculture on an equal footing with the power grid, financial, transportation and telecommunications sectors as “critical infrastructure” is a relatively new development

An agro-terrorism scenario
The Iowa Department of Homeland Security at , a multi-discipline training program that discusses how different levels of government and different communities respond to foreign animal disease outbreaks, has come up with an agro-terrorism exercise scenario that plays out like this:

An animal disease outbreak starts on a single Iowa farm when the owner notices strange blisters on his hogs.  Eight months later, nearly 10,000 animals have been slaughtered; every major foreign trading partner has banned U.S. animal imports. The cost to Iowa alone could top $12 billion.

State agriculture departments across the nation are developing similar pseudo threat scenarios.

“Veterinarians play a key role in such scenarios,” says Colleen O’Keefe, former Illinois state veterinarian and now division manager of Food Safety and Animal Protection for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The Illinois effort is “very grass roots” now, O’Keefe said and focuses on making vets more aware of diseases they may have pushed off their radar screen.

“When I was in school, they taught us that if you hear hoof beats ‘think horse, not zebra,’” O’Keefe said.  “And what we’re saying now is ‘think zebra, too.’”  There are a lot of diseases, such as foot-and-mouth, that have been eliminated from the United States and veterinarians may have simply stopped looking for them, she said.

Thinking exotic
O’Keefe said her office is telling vets they have to put exotic ailments back into their diagnosis routines and not simply exclude them because they are long shots.  “We’re telling them that even if a there’s a less than 1 percent chance ... keep it there, don’t rule out that possibility.”

And it’s not just the large-animal vet that is being brought under the homeland security umbrella; the doc that treats the family pet is being recruited as well. 

Reaching small-animal vets is priority for O’Keefe because she says these practitioners may very well be the first to see a harmful disease.  “The reason is that there are so many animals that come in as exotic pets,” O’Keefe said. A diseased animal that’s been living in a burrow in Africa on Monday could be in the family living room by Sunday, she said, leaving open the possibility that the sickness could jump to the human population.

As a result, veterinarians have been recruited in the war on terror.

A first responder mentality
“Veterinarians absolutely fit in [to our homeland security plans],” says David Kaufman, deputy director of Preparedness Programs for the Department of Homeland Security.  “While it may not be the first thing you would think of, veterinarians are on the group of professional disciplines that need to have awareness of what to look for, in terms of signs of symptoms, for the pets they would be seeing in urban areas,” Kaufman says, “because that can often be a precursor of something going on in the public health arena.”

Though most efforts aimed at thwarting agro-terrorism are directed by state programs using federal money funneled through the Department of Agriculture, just how much federal homeland security funding goes directly to veterinary purposes isn’t known.  The DHS budget “doesn’t get to that level of granularity,” Kaufman said.  Instead, veterinary services are rolled into a confusing array of projects and funding agencies that include:

  • A total of $596 million in the administration's 2006 proposed budget for the USDA, HHS and DHS is aimed at improving the country’s ability “to detect and contain intentional and unintentional contamination of America’s agriculture and food system,” according to the White House.
  • A proposed $218 million in 2006 is budgeted for information gathering and analysis in conjunction with the national biosurveillance initiative that began last year.
  • A proposed $669 million in the DHS 2006 budget is earmarked for critical infrastructure threat assessments and protection programs.
  • And a proposed $385 million for 2006 is aimed at the DHS Biological Countermeasures Office, to develop animal vaccines.

From farm to fork
Although much more attention has been given to other areas of national vulnerability, such as borders, seaports and commercial aviation, American agriculture, from farm to fork, remains vulnerable at nearly every turn.  A single case of foot and mouth disease in the United States  would immediately shut down all livestock exports said Ty Vannieuwenhoven, a USDA veterinarian working in Wisconsin as an area emergency coordinator“If we had one case of FMD in Wisconsin, it would stop the entire country’s ability to ship any kind of susceptible [animal] to rest of the world if it were a cow, a sheep, a goat or a pig,” he said.

Experts say an outbreak in the United States would likely cripple the nation's economy; the beef industry alone is worth $70 billion. Because of a single case of mad cow disease discovered in the United States in December 2003, the industry lost nearly 80 percent of its exports between January and September 2004. 

Agriculture “isa very open system, distributed across the country, and guarding it and protecting it totally is economically and physically impossible,” said Marianne Ash, a biosecurity and preparedness planner on the Indiana Board of Animal Health.  “Our key to success then is going to be early detection,” said Ash, a veterinarian herself, “because obviously the earlier we detect that we have a problem the greater the opportunity to control and contain it, minimize the damage and get back to business.”

Veterinarians also play a key role as part of agriculture’s early warning system, Ash said.  Nearly 75 percent of new and emerging diseases in man and “a very, very high percentage of defined and potential bio-terrorism agents” listed by the federal Centers for Disease Control are diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans, Ash said. “This means that the veterinarians are sometimes the first to identify and see these diseases,” Ash said, “or in the event of an intentional introduction of a weapon of mass destruction, the animals being smaller, the veterinarian might also be the first person to see a case of weaponized anthrax or plague or anything of that nature, because animals are susceptible to those agents.”

Eyes, ears and hooves on the ground
As vital as a trained veterinary community is to the health and protection of the nation’s food supply, any kind of outbreak would quickly overwhelm government-employed veterinarians, Vannieuwenhoven said. 

Looking ahead to such a possibility, Vannieuwenhoven is helping coordinate the Wisconsin Veterinary Corps. The corps is a kind of National Guard for veterinarians, an all-volunteer group “of veterinarians, veterinary technicians and veterinary students who would be interested in being temporary state, federal or even potentially voluntary employees in an outbreak situation,” Vannieuwenhoven said.  Other states have instituted similar veterinary corps as well.

The American Veterinary Medical Association is heading up a nationwide effort to form veterinary medical assistance teams in different regions of the country. The mission of these teams is “to assist the local veterinary community with the care of animals and to provide veterinary oversight and advice concerning animal-related issues and public health during a disaster or following a request from an appropriate agency,” the association's Web site says.

Wisconsin state veterinarians also help register all livestock and premises where livestock are kept, including backyard chicken coops, as a part a statewide effort that tracks closely the goals of the . The NAIS, run out of the Agriculture Department in cooperation with industry and state agriculture agencies, is intended to provide a 48-hour snapshot of the movements of any diseased or exposed animal. In the event of any kind of out break, rapid disease containment is vital, health officials said.

Animal tracking
NAIS is a and its database continues to grow as more and more animal producers opt into the system. The database will track animals from birth to market.

"We will establish an electronic trail," said Dee Whittier, extension specialist with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "When an animal goes through a checkpoint, such as a sales site or feedlot, it will be recorded,” Whittier said, using a type of device such as a radio-frequency identification tags on an animal’s ear. Whittier notes that retinal scanning of cows also has been discussed because each cow’s retina is unique. 

Veterinary services are also woven into the fabric of homeland security in subtler ways.  For example, the high number of bomb-sniffing dog teams used during the Democratic and Republican conventions last year required veterinarians to be on site to ensure the dogs were being properly cared for.

In addition, veterinarians are needed during a disaster, such as a chemical or hazardous material spill, or any kind of bio-terrorism outbreak that requires decontamination procedures.

“People aren’t going to leave their pets behind,” says Vannieuwenhoven, “and veterinarians will be needed to handle the decontamination of those pets,” he said.  “Now, I don’t know if your definition of ‘homeland security’ includes such things, but mine does.”