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Tufts Veterinarians Help Fight Terrorism

Tufts Veterinarians Help Fight TerrorismInthe post-9/11 world, the skills of veterinarians are needed beyondthe scope of everyday pet care. Tufts’ veterinary schoolis on the front lines of the fight against bioterrorism.No.Grafton, Mass.

No. Grafton, Mass. [01.31.05] In the fall of 2001, the threat of terrorism on Americansoil became a reality, and anthrax was transformed into a householdword. Faced with the new threat of domestic bioterrorism –particularly with agents that can be easily transmitted via animals– there is a new role for veterinarians, which Tufts is helping to fill.

“Before9/11, bioterrorism was something that only military vets reallyspoke about,” Dr. GeorgeSaperstein, who heads the Departmentof Environmental and Population Health at TuftsSchool of Veterinary Medicine, told The Chronicle of HigherEducation.

That has allchanged. Government agencies now look to veterinarians like thosefrom Tufts to help them stay one step ahead of possible futurebioterrorist incidents.

The anthraxletters, which infected 22 people and killed five in 2001, wereone of the first salvos in this new battle, with veterinarianscalled in to help explain various scenarios involving that andother deadly diseases.

A common diseasein cattle, anthrax was not an unfamiliar threat to veterinarians.“Anthrax was not a new disease to us, nor was it somethingthat made us shake in our boots,” Saperstein told the Chronicle.

Accordingto the Chronicle, the U.S. Centers for Disease Controlcites three-quarters of diseases that could be employed by terroristsas zoonotic, or transferred from animals to humans. That makesfor a lot of dangerous possibilities.

“Whynot release it in a rat in New York City or a moose in Maine?Let it loose and watch people get scared,” Saperstein theorized.

An increasedattentiveness to patterns in the animal world is integral to determiningwhat possible contaminants or foreign agents are affecting theenvironment.

“Weneed to look at these sentinels and ask, what are they tellingus about changes in the world around us?” Dr. MarkPokras, director of Tufts’Wildlife Clinic, told the Chronicle. “Whenwe see die-offs, are they due to an infectious agent that couldbe spreading?”

Tomorrow’sveterinarians are trained to be alert to these phenomena. TheInternationalVeterinary Medicine program at Tufts Veterinary School preparesstudents to be aware of the relationship between the ‘animalworld’ and the ‘people world’ when it comesto disease outbreaks and other public health issues that haveglobal repercussions.

Tufts’commitment to bioterrorism research was recognized in the fallof 2003 when the National Institutes of Health awarded$25 million to the veterinary school for research into food-and water-borne illnesses.

“Thisis part of homeland security,” SaulTzipori, director of Tufts'Division of Infectious Diseases and leader of the researchinitiative, told the Associated Press at the time. “Thegovernment is really investing a lot of money into building upour biodefenses.”

The researchbore fruit this fall when Tufts researchers announced that theyhad decodedthe genome for Cryptosporidium, a dangerous water-borne, disease-carryingparasite.

"Sequencingthe genome of Cryptosporidium will help us determine the underlyingmechanisms of the organism's unusual resistance to antimicrobialagents, and enable us to develop preventive vaccines and/or pharmaceuticaltreatments," Tzipori said.

Among otherefforts, Tufts Veterinary School graduate and adjunct professorJon Epstein (V/MPH’02) – the first recipient of Tufts’certificate in internationalveterinary medicinespenttime in Malaysia to researchthe deadly Nipah virus, classified by the Centers for DiseaseControl as a potential bioterrorism agent.

From the labsin Grafton to the jungles in Asia, the battlegrounds of this fightare found internationally.

Zenda Berrada,a doctoral student in comparative biomedical sciences at Tufts,is a foot soldier in this war. Stationed in Martha’s Vineyard,she traps animals and tests their ticks for tularemia –a bacterial disease classified by the government as being as dangerousas the plague.

It’sfront-line work like this that could uncover the next round ofbioterrorist attacks in the United States.

“Veterinarianscan give a heads-up if something unusual is going on in the animalpopulation,” Berrada told the Chronicle.








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