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Preparing Veterinarians For The Front Lines

Preparing Veterinarians For The Front LinesWell trained and observant veterinarians may be the country’s best defense against a devastating agroterrorism attack, says a Tufts expert. No. Grafton, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.03.04] While explosives-laden cars and backpacks have been used to execute many of the most recent terrorist attacks around the world, future attacks might begin with a crow, a cow or even a mosquito. Experts like Tufts' George Saperstein say agroterrorism - which is designed to cause massive economic devastation through the spread of deadly animal and crop diseases - is an important threat to consider. And veterinarians may be the nation's first - and best - defense.

"It is difficult to overestimate the havoc these types of diseases - even ones not transmissible to people - can wreak on the social, economic, political and psychological fabric of a nation," reported an article in the International Herald Tribune. "There is personal suffering, to be sure, as animals are killed and ways of life evaporate. On a broader scale, there is huge economic loss both domestically and in foreign exports."

Valued at more than $200 billion, the country's agriculture industry accounts for a huge number of jobs and nearly 14 percent of the gross national product. A zoonotic disease like West Nile, Mad Cow or Foot and Mouth released into the animal population could prove to be extremely destructive.

"We're trying to get animal caretakers to recognize something that would be suspicious as an unusual event," Saperstein, a veterinarian and livestock disease expert at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, told the newspaper. "We want them to say, ‘There's something about this horse or cow that doesn't look normal,' and then call the USDA to dispatch an expert."

To help, Tufts has taken a lead role in training the nation's veterinarians, which number more than 70,000 nationwide.

"Veterinarians and veterinary technicians are being told to be suspicious and to become educated on what to do if something unusual or inexplicable occurs," reported the Herald Tribune. "To meet that challenge, Tufts initiated a series of five programs for people working in various fields involving animals - health care, sales, farming, wildlife, conservation and public health - about the symptoms of diseases that might be agroterrorist agents."

While it is difficult to determine if an agroterrorist attack has been attempted already, Saperstein says the tactic has been around for decades.

"During World War I, a German secret agent came to Long Island, NY, and started growing anthrax. The targets were horses and mules, at that time the mode of transportation for troops," reported the newspaper. "'We don't know if it worked,' Saperstein said."

A similar plan was developed by the English during World War II, but was never initiated.

When West Nile virus broke out several years ago, Saperstein wondered if the emergence of the disease was intentional. Many people were skeptical - "People said, ‘Oh, no. It doesn't kill a lot of people,'" he said. But as the number of cases quickly rose from a few dozen to nearly 10,000, people took notice.

"[The Tufts expert] said the disease ‘could have been brought in a vial carried in someone's breast pocket coming here on a plane,'" reported the Herald Tribune. "Soft-spoken and easygoing, Saperstein is hardly a fear monger. He is, however, a realist."

And he is not alone.

"The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention keeps a list of the six most dangerous potential agents for bioterrorism," reported the Herald Tribune. "Five of them - plague, tularemia, anthrax, botulism and hemorrhagic fevers - are zoonotic [which means they are shared by animals and humans]."

Veterinarians will likely be in the best position to notice and report an attack using a zoonotic disease.

"It's highly likely an event would be seen in animals first," Saperstein said in the article, which also appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "The key to putting out the fire is early detection."

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