If epidemic hits animals, state plans to be ready

Outbreak in Britain sparks preparedness

January 25, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

At 7 a.m., a veterinarian in Frederick County takes a telephone call from a worried dairyman. Several of the farmer's cattle are slobbering and feverish. They appear lame, with sores on their feet and in their mouths.

The vet drives out to the farm and soon is on the telephone, describing the scene in the dairy barn to the state agricultural veterinarian.

By 11:15 a.m., a state foreign animal disease diagnostician has reached the dairy. He reports back that he is "highly suspicious" that the Frederick cows are infected with foot-and-mouth disease, perhaps the most contagious and dreaded livestock disease known to modern agriculture.

The scenario is imaginary, the opening act in a "tabletop" exercise conducted last summer in Reisterstown to test the readiness of Maryland and federal agencies, law enforcement, veterinary and agricultural interests to respond to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

But although the drill was hypothetical, the threat of an economic disaster in the United States triggered by the accidental or malicious introduction of a highly contagious foreign animal or poultry disease, is all too real.

"It's not an issue of if we get one of these diseases; it's an issue of when," said Corrie Brown, professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Georgia and an expert on agricultural terrorism.

Jolted into action by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England in February, Maryland's Department of Agriculture began work on a new state Animal Disease Emergency Management Plan. A final version is expected to be sent to the governor next month.

The plan's authors warn that contagious animal or poultry diseases could pose a significant risk in Maryland and have a severe effect on the state economy. The draft guidelines would integrate public and private disease containment efforts under the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and establish clear response protocols and procedures.

"It's a work in progress," said veterinarian Jacob Casper, former director of the state's veterinary diagnostic lab in Frederick, who led the project. "Though I would like to say it's 90 percent complete and moving toward completion, in reality it's never completed."

The foot-and-mouth virus affects cattle, sheep, pigs and wild deer. Infected animals rarely die, but they're so sick they won't eat, give less milk and lose weight. "People will not keep pumping food and money into an animal that's not giving a return," Casper said. "It's more of an economic disease."

The virus is expelled in the breath and excretions of infected animals. It can be spread rapidly in the air and in contaminated dirt, hay, shoes, tires or clothing. It's so infectious that an outbreak will shut down exports of animal products.

The biggest threats to Maryland's huge poultry industry are Newcastle Disease, which is nearly 100 percent fatal, and avian influenza, which can be mild or deadly. Both are spread by direct contact with infected birds, their discharges and feces, farm equipment, or the shoes and clothing of farm workers.

The terror attacks Sept. 11 and the anthrax letters in October increased official awareness that agricultural diseases might also be introduced by terrorists targeting America's huge stockyards, chicken houses and livestock markets.

Keith Baker, a spokesman for the British Veterinary Society, said there was no evidence of terrorism in the 2001 outbreak in England. "But to be perfectly honest," he said, "if somebody wanted to be that way, and they could get infected material from a country that's got foot-and-mouth disease, and they could get it across a border, anything is possible."

Last summer's foot-and-mouth drill was held six weeks before the attacks Sept. 11. But as simulated dispatches came in reporting foot-and-mouth outbreaks in neighboring states, Casper said, the participants considered the possibility that the region was under attack by agri-terrorists.

They decided their response would be the same whether the disease were introduced accidentally or deliberately except that the site would also be a crime scene.

Under the state's draft response plan, a threatened outbreak in Maryland of any of 15 foreign or newly emerging livestock diseases would trigger a "Level 1" alert, with heightened surveillance and public education.

Identification of a suspected case of animal illness would initiate a "Level 2" emergency. In last summer's simulation, authorities responded to the suspected Frederick dairy outbreak by dispatching veterinarians and technicians to inspect nearby farms. The teams traced the previous movements of animals and people and found suspicious lesions on animals at several farms.

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