Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Illinois Veterinarians Play Vital Role in Homeland Security

Pet Column for the week of July 4, 2005

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Services - Public Health
Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

More than 170 veterinarians from throughout Illinois are members of the Illinois Veterinary Emergency Response Team, or IVERT. All have received training to respond to animal disease outbreaks, including foreign animal diseases and potential bioterrorism, especially within the domestic food supply.

"IVERT was developed to function as a National Guard of veterinarians," says Dr. Larry Firkins, associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and member of IVERT. "The veterinarians in IVERT keep up with foreign animal disease training, and, if an emergency arises, will be called upon to leave their everyday jobs to address the crisis."

IVERT is a program overseen by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, working jointly with the state's Emergency Management Agency. It has a partnership with the state's only College of Veterinary Medicine, which is located in Urbana. If a veterinary emergency arises, professors, practitioners, and veterinary students from the college may be called upon to contribute their skills and expertise.

Dr. Firkins explains that IVERT members stay current on new or foreign diseases that can devastate herds of animals, such as anthrax, foot and mouth disease, and avian influenza, through annual state and regional meetings.

Veterinarians are trained to recognize and treat diseases that affect food animals, the source of our beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. But not all diseases that threaten food animals are zoonotic, i.e., transmissible to humans. "Diseases that can infiltrate our food supply may make us sick, but an additional issue of concern is the impact a foreign animal disease outbreak would have on our economy," explains Dr. Firkins.

For example, foot and mouth disease (FMD) does not make humans critically ill, but the highly contagious virus can cause severe disease in cattle and swine. This disease is economically devastating and spreads quickly from farm to farm. An FMD outbreak would halt international trade relations because other countries would ban U.S. animal products, which currently account for about $12 billion of annual exports.

Early diagnosis of a disease is the key to preventing catastrophic outbreaks. Through programs like IVERT, veterinarians learn how to identify symptoms and signs of unusual or foreign diseases. Local veterinarians who have close relationships with cattle, swine, and poultry farmers and visit farms regularly can help farmers identify outbreaks early--ideally delivering a lab-tested diagnosis within 24 hours of seeing a sick animal.

If a disease is diagnosed, the next step is to prevent the disease from spreading. This may involve treating, quarantining, or euthanizing animals. Local veterinarians will contact other farms in the vicinity to make sure those animals are tested for the disease.

"Of course," Dr. Firkins points out, "the best way to prevent an outbreak of any disease is to keep it from entering the herd in the first place." This requires sanitation protocols that must be followed by everyone who visits or works on the farm.

If Illinois does have a serious animal disease outbreak, the state has plans in place to respond quickly, and the veterinary experts of IVERT will play a key role.