Veterinary response teams proliferate

Veterinarians train for disease outbreaks and disasters
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In the past few years, the number of veterinary emergency response teams in the United States has increased. Some teams focus on being able to respond to a disease outbreak, and others, to a disaster such as the effects of a hurricane. Some do both.

"The combined staff of state and federal animal health agencies will not be adequate to conduct all of the activities that will be required to quickly respond to an outbreak of a foreign animal disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease. If you don't have people identified, contact information, and training done ahead of time, you are going to be slow to get (a response effort) off the ground," said Dr. Karina Burger, who in late August was an emergency planning veterinarian at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and head of the Minnesota Veterinary Reserve Corps.

This corps, which will respond to disease outbreaks and disasters, formed this past February and, at press time, had 371 volunteers—veterinarians, veterinary students, and technicians.

"We just had a radiological preparedness exercise and, for the first time, we did pet decontamination and monitoring," Dr. Burger said. "If people are told to leave their pets behind and evacuate for any kind of disaster, a certain percentage of people won't evacuate and won't leave their pets ... so there is this push around the country to start planning for pets and disasters."

Minnesota has two nuclear plants in the state. Dr. Burger says that besides training for nuclear disasters, the Minnesota corps is focusing on foreign animal diseases and zoonoses. Each state veterinary emergency response group may have different training priorities, depending on the animal populations and the situations that occur in a state.

The Illinois Veterinary Emergency Response Team formed in October 2003 and is another example of the proliferation of state response teams. It has roughly 150 volunteers. "It's been gradually assembled over the last year," said Jim Kunkle, coordinator of the team.

To gain more visibility and coordinate with other emergency response groups, MVRC and IVERT have become Medical Reserve Corps units. While there are veterinarians in other Medical Reserve Corps units, these are the only two veterinary corps in the Medical Reserve Corps.

The Medical Reserve Corps, led by the Office of the Surgeon General, got off the ground in the fall of 2002. Each local unit is established, activated, and operated by the local community, in concert with established emergency response and public health systems. Volunteers' responsibilities include emergency response, logistic planning, record keeping, assistance in public health and awareness campaigns, and public communications.

Dr. Ty Vannieuwenhoven, an emergency program coordinator for the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says he hopes veterinary response teams in all states become Medical Reserve Corps units. Being part of the MRC makes these veterinary reserve corps part of the public health response community.

"I'd like to see them all get recognized that way," Dr. Vannieuwenhoven said. "It gives them visibility—that these units exist, that you can join them, how to contact them, and how to train with them. It is another way for those groups to be recognized to say, 'Hey, we've got somebody close by.' So, it may lead to additional networking within the state. It may lead other states to say, 'We need a veterinary medical reserve corps.'"