Congress works to support veterinarians and other first responders to bioterrorist threats

Published on November 15, 2001
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AVMA from the Hill


Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, nationwide concerns about bioterrorism climbed to the top of the congressional agenda, placing many programs of importance to veterinarians and other public health officials in the spotlight.

At press time in late October, none of the current bills addressing bioterrorism had passed in Congress. Legislative efforts to address bioterrorism encompassed a broad spectrum of concepts, including those that would help to protect the nation's food supply and agricultural economies.

A Veterinary Medical Assistance Team in training
A Veterinary Medical Assistance Team in training

The role of veterinarians as first responders to outbreaks of animal disease is central to national efforts to defend against agroterrorism. Veterinarians are involved in disease surveillance, initial clinical examinations, and diagnostic workups. These are essential in cases of any suspicious animal illness to limit the spread of disease to other animals and to humans, in the case of a zoonotic agent.

In the area of food safety, veterinarians play an essential role in preserving the integrity of the food supply. Additionally, in cases of an animal disease outbreak, veterinarians serve as critical resources of science-based information for the public, and many participate on disaster response teams.

The improvement and implementation of biosecurity measures and advances in disease prevention and treatment will provide essential support for the front-line activities of veterinarians in the field. Innovations that would help veterinarians and other public health officials prepare for potential attacks include new approaches to epidemic disease control, mass vaccine delivery systems, alternatives to widespread aerial chemical control of insect vectors of disease, and rapid diagnostics.

The possible use of zoonotic or foreign animal diseases as weapons has increased the already crucial need to modernize the Department of Agriculture's animal health facilities at the National Animal Disease Center, the National Veterinary Services Laboratories, and the Center for Veterinary Biologics, all in Ames, Iowa. Other facilities in need of renovations and improvements include the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Georgia, and the Animal Disease Research Laboratory in Wyoming.

To address needed facility updates, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) introduced the Bio-Security for Agriculture Act (S 1546), which would expand programs that protect livestock and crops from terrorist attacks. The bill would provide $1.1 billion next year and $271 million per year for the following 10 years to enable needed facility updates and modernizations. Additionally, as requested in Presidential Directive 67, the bill would fund increased biosecurity measures at existing USDA research facilities.

Roberts' bill would provide grants for federal agencies, universities, and other research facilities in support of bioterrorism response initiatives. The funding authorized in the bill would also invest in technologies such as rapid detection field test kits that would provide veterinarians and others on the front line of animal agriculture with the tools needed to quickly diagnose animal diseases. Roberts said he hopes these investments will prevent a catastrophic attack from crippling the nation's food supply.

Protecting the nation's food supply from agroterrorist threats places veterinarians who monitor food safety on the front line of detection and prevention of foodborne illnesses that may result from deliberate contamination by terrorists. Several members of Congress asked that additional money from the $40 billion emergency fund that Congress created after the Sept. 11 attacks be allocated to improving food safety, particularly to increase inspections of foods imported to the United States.

A Veterinary Medical Assistance Team participates in a HAZMAT drill.
A Veterinary Medical Assistance Team participates in a HAZMAT drill.

Last year during the 106th Congress, senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Bill Frist (R-TN) sponsored the Public Health Improvement Act of 2000, which was signed into law. That legislation authorized a variety of programs, including improved detection of bioterrorist attacks by augmenting state and local disease surveillance, enhancing food safety, and upgrading the capacity of laboratories to identify biological weapons; improved treatment by enhancing local and federal medical response teams; and improved containment of an attack by providing better vaccines, developing the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, and increasing research for new medicines.

Although those programs were authorized when the Public Health Improvement Act became law, the money to fund those programs must now come through the appropriations process. In all, Kennedy and Frist project that $1.414 billion in additional appropriations are needed to fully fund the act. If the act were to receive funding for that amount, it would expand the Department of Health and Human Services current bioterrorism budget ($297 million) by more than 400 percent.

Other bills, including the Biological and Chemical Weapons Preparedness Act (S 1486) sponsored by senators John Edwards (D-NC) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) would develop and expand the nation's stockpile of vaccines and antimicrobials, and assist with agricultural and food safety preparedness.

Disaster response teams, including the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, respond quickly when emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, create the need for assistance. Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced HR 2333 to create the National Medical Emergency Assistance Act. The bill specifically mentions veterinary medicine as an auxiliary service in cases of disaster. It would make veterinarians and other health care personnel who participate in emergency response efforts temporary government employees and would entitle them to insurance coverage. As part of the National Disaster Medical System, the VMAT program would receive funds to support training and, in cases of disaster, their deployment.

In addition to legislation that would provide financial support to animal production and research outlets to prevent potential terrorist attacks, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-WA) introduced HR 2795, the Agroterrorism Prevention Act of 2001, to empower law enforcement to improve protection of those facilities. The bill would make it a federal offense to injure, intimidate, or interfere with plant- and animal-related enterprises, including research and production facilities.

The legislative efforts to support bioterrorism preparedness underscore the important role of veterinarians in protecting public health, particularly in the case of a terrorist event. Understanding the widespread ramifications that an agroterrorist attack could have on the greater U.S. economy, Congress has recognized the need to provide veterinarians and other health care professionals with the tools needed to protect and preserve animal health.

April Demert, policy and program specialist, AVMA Governmental Relations Division, Washington, D.C.