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Veterinary professor warns: Be alert to biological weapons, effects

In the volatile climate of the world today, even veterinarians are involved in the war against terrorism. Dr. Roger Easley, professor of veterinary pathology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State University and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, defined bioterrorism as “a hostile terrorist attack with a biological agent.”

“Biological weapons are intended to cause physical harm, fear, panic, and disruption of economics and commerce,” he said.

People are not the only potential targets of bioterrorism. “Terrorists could cause our society great harm by attacking our animals or plants,” Easley said.

Easley listed chlorine and phosgene gases, cyanide, nerve gases, ricin toxin and anthrax among the potential agents for use against people, but the comprehensive list of potential weapons is great. Most of these agents could affect animals as well as humans.

“Farmers, agricultural workers and veterinarians should be informed of the potential terrorist agents, of their effects and how to respond to them and report them. They should contact the appropriate government officials if they observe anything suspicious in their animals,” Easley said.

Zoonotic diseases affect both animals and humans. The majority of the biological agents designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potential instruments of bioterrorism are zoonotic, including anthrax, botulism, plague, brucellosis and ricin toxin. None of these are likely to be passed from animals to humans under normal circumstances, but individuals collecting animal tissues and body fluids should use barrier protection such as latex gloves to prevent transmission.

There are many ways to deliver a terrorist weapon, but Easley said terrorists would be most likely to use aerosols to disperse the weapon into the air where it can affect a large number of people at one time.

“Standard operating procedure in a biological or chemical attack requires that animals be decontaminated and handled as little as possible initially to avoid accidental ingestion or inhalation of skin particles by animal handlers,” Easley said.

“Managers of public facilities and events should have a coordinated plan with law enforcement and emergency response personnel to deal with attacks if they occur, including methods of crowd control (humans and animals), decontamination, isolation and treatment. For worst case scenarios, euthanasia and disposal of animal carcasses should be considered,” Easley advised.

If an individual is in an environment where a biological weapon might have been released, Easley gave guidelines for defense.

  • Do not panic.
  • Immediately cover the nose and mouth with a cloth and cover exposed skin.
  • Protect the eyes and move away from the source to fresh air.
  • Turn off electrical appliances and close doors and windows to contain the agent after everyone evacuates.
  • Remove contaminated clothing and decontaminate the body with soap and water immediately.

Although bioterrorism is a concern, the best defense is education and preparation. MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine in cooperation with the Mississippi Board of Animal Health and U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Veterinary Services recently conducted a Foreign Animal Disease Short Course. Veterinarians and veterinary students received instruction and training in animal safety, biosecurity and bioterrorism issues. Easley conducted a bioterrorism primer for attendees.

“Fear and panic are always exaggerated when dealing with the unknown. Information and education are critical links when planning for bioterrorism response,” Easley said.

He said that all appropriate government agencies are actively developing responses to the threat of bioterrorism.

“The College of Veterinary Medicine at Mississippi State has staff members on planning and response teams, and several staff are providing continuing education programs on the subject of bioterrorism,” Easley said.

Laura Whelan writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

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