Veterinarians the 'first line of defense' in biologic attack

AVMA, AAVMC letter seeks educational resources on biodefense for veterinarians
Published on May 01, 2003
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The AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges have urged the federal government to develop educational materials on biodefense that can be distributed to all veterinarians to further their contributions to homeland security.

In a joint letter to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services dated Dec. 17, 2002, AVMA President Joe M. Howell and AAVMC President Keith W. Prasse explained that the role of veterinarians as medical specialists has been reinforced since 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks.

"A number of prominent national figures have publicly recognized veterinarians as biomedical experts and the first line of defense in a biological attack," Drs. Howell and Prasse wrote. "Of the diseases listed as possible terrorist bio-agents, almost three quarters are zoonotic agents, affecting both man and animals."

Many veterinarians are experts in zoonotic diseases, they continued, but veterinarians in any number of fields would serve as informational resources for the general public. For example, in the event of bioterrorist attack, companion animal practitioners will be asked by pet owners about the type of biologic agent, its potential to spread, the level of risk, and danger to people.

Drs. Howell and Prasse go on to write that if the veterinary profession is to be the most valuable resource possible, additional continuing education about zoonotic agents used in bioterrorism will be necessary.

The AVMA Executive Board in November approved a recommendation from the AVMA/AAVMC Joint Committee to send the letter requesting additional educational resources for veterinarians. That same month, the AAVMC sponsored a symposium on the role of veterinary medicine in biodefense and public health (see JAVMA, Feb. 15, 2003, page 415).

Bill Hawks, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, responded in a Feb. 25 letter, writing that a number of initiatives have been undertaken since 9/11 to prepare for potential threats to the food supply and to involve the veterinary community in those planning efforts.

"We recognize that the actions and vigilance of private veterinary practitioners can be critical in identifying and containing foreign disease outbreaks," Hawks wrote.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has conducted satellite seminars sharing emergency preparedness information with more than 1,700 federal and state veterinary officials, emergency planners, military representatives, and academics, according to Hawks. APHIS has also created the National Animal Health Reserve Corps of nearly 300 private veterinarians prepared to assist locally during a disease emergency.

Hawks noted that APHIS officials have developed informational resources on foreign animal diseases specifically for use by private veterinarians. This includes a CD-ROM, provided to state veterinarians for distribution to private practitioners, explaining how to identify foreign animal diseases.

Foreign animal disease training modules are posted on the agency's Web site ( APHIS' reference lending library of more than 5,000 slides is available to veterinarians for identifying foreign animal diseases. Hawks also encouraged veterinarians to take advantage of "The Gray Book," which provides in­depth information on about 40 foreign animal diseases and is available on the U.S. Animal Health Association's Web site at

In addition, Hawks stated that for fiscal year 2004, the USDA is requesting $1 million for specific biosecurity initiatives, such as establishing a network of foreign animal disease diagnosticians and conducting additional awareness campaigns regarding potential threats to the agricultural infrastructure.

Additional information about APHIS' lending library and other foreign animal disease reference materials is available by contacting Emergency Programs, Veterinary Services, APHIS, USDA, Unit 41, 4700 River Road, Riverdale, MD. 20737-1231; or (800) 601-9327.