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College Helps State Prepare Veterinarians as First Responders in Animal Disease Outbreak
by Julia Foster Gawley

[Dr. Firkins with pigs]With millions of international travelers passing through O’Hare Airport in Chicago each year, Illinois agriculture is especially vulnerable to the introduction of a highly contagious foreign animal disease, whether accidentally or as a deliberate act of bioterrorism. Experts say the economic impact of such an outbreak could easily run into the billions of dollars nationally. Worse yet, some diseases affecting the animal population have zoonotic potential—that is, could be passed to humans.

Since 1998 the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDA) has been developing and refining an emergency response plan in the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak. Both the devastating foot and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom in early 2001 and the terrorist attacks against the United States later that year have given this effort increased urgency.

Key players in the plan, veterinarians would be on the frontlines of a foreign animal disease outbreak. “Veterinarians have the training to recognize disease and the knowledge of where animals are located within each county,” explains Dr. Larry Firkins, a veterinary pathobiology faculty member and swine Extension veterinarian who helped develop the plan. “Because they are out on the farms, veterinarians will encounter the disease more quickly than anyone other than the animal owners.”

The plan hinges on having a quick response. A quarantine would be put into effect for people and animals within perhaps a six-mile radius of a suspected case of a foreign animal disease. If the disease is definitively identified, and it is a highly contagious disease, such as foot and mouth disease, all susceptible animals on the property and perhaps adjoining properties may have to be humanely euthanized as soon as possible. Veterinarians would immediately visit all neighboring farms to detect whether the disease had spread.

Experts from the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory are developing the capacity to screen suspected cases on farms, using portable rapid-result equipment. If an outbreak occurs, this will speed the implementation of the plan.

The Illinois Emergency Animal Disease Response Plan has been annexed to the Illinois state emergency operations plan to give officials authority to mobilize the massive resources of people, material, and money that would be needed to address the situation. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA), which helped craft the plan, would play a critical role in directing the response.

Through a memorandum of understanding with the IDA, the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has agreed to reassign veterinary faculty to the problem if an animal disease emergency is declared.

Earlier this year the IDA appropriated a Homeland Security grant to recruit and begin training local veterinarians to detect and respond to an outbreak. A series of regional meetings helped raise awareness, give an overview of the emergency plan and incident command training, and review potential biological threats to the animal industry. Dr. Firkins, along with University of Illinois beef Extension veterinarian Dr. Gavin Meerdink and two other Illinois veterinarians, attended a conference last January in Orlando, Fla., in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared them to train the state’s practicing veterinarians on biological agents that could be used as weapons.

Dr. Firkins joined officials from IDA and IEMA to hold training meetings for Illinois veterinarians in Utica, Lena, Mt. Vernon, Jacksonville, and Galesburg. Veterinarians who attended the voluntary meetings formed a group called the First Responders Network, now 145 members strong, and ready to identify and respond accordingly in case of an outbreak in Illinois.

“One-hundred percent of the veterinarians who attended the meetings joined the network,” states Dr. Firkins. “Illinois veterinarians have an excellent understanding about the seriousness of this issue and are committed to the effort.”

In October, veterinarians attending the College’s annual Fall Conference, had the opportunity to receive additional training in this area while receiving continuing education credit.

“The goal of the training program is to re-educate veterinarians on foreign animal diseases they’ve never seen before, and prepare them to respond if they suspect one,” says Dr. Firkins. Veterinarians who participate will receive emergency phone numbers for a 24-hour command and control unit. If they suspect a foreign animal disease, local veterinarians will report it to the federal veterinarian, who will respond immediately.

The system can be implemented on a stand alone, short-term basis, which is important, because as Dr. Firkins states, “While still challenging, it will be much simpler to contain a disease on one farm, than if it spreads to several. The importance of training local veterinarians to quickly identify the disease so the spread can be stopped cannot be overestimated.”

Even if veterinarians never have to test the system, the program is beneficial because it helps prevent the spread of domestic diseases. “Making people aware of foreign animal diseases makes them more vigilant in general,” explains Dr. Firkins. “They will be more likely to implement biosecurity measures and isolate new animals if they are aware of the possibility of foreign animal diseases.”

The new programs are an important beginning to combat potential threats to Illinois agriculture. States Dr. Firkins, “This is an ongoing effort by all those involved to protect the vital resources the livestock industry represents to the state of Illinois.”

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A Report on North and Central American Biosecurity
By Dr. Larry Firkins

On August 14 to 16, 2003, I attended the Development of a Bi-Continental Awareness Network for Livestock Security Risks-U.S., Mexico, Canada, Central America and the Caribbean Conference in Mexico City. What follows is information on the objective of the conference.

There were approximately 200 people that attended with relatively few individuals from the U.S. The majority were from Mexico and Central American countries. The conference was the first step in the development of this awareness network more closely linking these countries.

Risks of devastating infectious diseases of livestock are increasing from natural spread, from increased movements of both human and animal vectors, and from intentional actions. The livestock industries of Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America should be regarded as one large and highly vulnerable population. Risk factors and infectious agents observe no national boundaries. Neither should our preventive programs.

Education of first responders and public sector organizations is needed to establish a knowledgeable populace and a culture based on prevention. A collaborative approach, in terms of geography, expertise, resources, and roles, is required to accomplish this end. This collaboration must vertically integrate individuals from the grassroots to the political leadership. It must be developed quickly and it must be sustainable. It must become part of the usual way of doing business in modern production, commerce and government.

This conference was a product of these needs. The conference was designed to identify critical issues of transboundary, emerging, and bioterrorist animal diseases and to accomplish the following objectives:

  1. Assess veterinary educational needs of stakeholders threatened by infectious diseases.
  2. Begin development of a common information base across the animal production industries.
  3. Compile a consensus document of critical issues related to livestock security for the region.
  4. Create an agenda for action to address these critical issues.

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