Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Veterinarians will be first line of defense

Six years ago, the nation was stunned when terrorism struck America, and we watched the World Trade Center towers collapse after being hit by hijacked planes. We mourned the nearly 3,000 people who died in New York, in Washington when another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field where a fourth hijacked plane hit the ground.

It was one of those days with haunting images that remain etched into our memories, and we will always recall what we were doing the moment we heard the news.

It didn’t matter if you were even an American that day: The whole world collectively watched in disbelief as the tragedy unfolded. All of us then wondered, what next?

Six years later, we still brace ourselves for that “what next” moment. We have become numb as we watch the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and count the dead each day; we’ve watched bombs go off and bomb attempts blocked in other countries; and, in the last few days, we’ve witnessed two more tapes from Osama bin Laden appear on the news and cruelly remind us the enemy is still out there and still hates us.

For farmers, there was a new reality they needed to deal with after 9/11. Bio-terrorism became the threat: Farmers and ranchers were told by their farm organizations, politicians, and so-called experts that farms and ranchers might be a target. The land, the air, the water, the crops, the animals: Suddenly all became potential targets for extremists who wished to harm lives as well as the economic stability of America.

Last week Cyril Clarke, the new dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, met with the Capital Press editorial board. Asked how much is bio-terrorism discussed at his college, he quickly replied, “A lot — it’s important.”

If terrorist action happened on farms and targeted animals, it will likely be a veterinarian that will be the first expert on the scene that will make the diagnosis, contact the various state and federal agencies, and work with them to contain the problem.

Clarke said bio-security crosses all three areas of what his college does: Teaching, research and service. “From the context of teaching, in terms of the coursework and preparation of our students to understand issues of bio-security, (it’s) very, very important.”

Clarke said because so many of the infectious agents related to bio-security are diseases that can be spread between animals and people, “veterinarians are very important monitors of the occurrence of those diseases within practice environments, so it is absolutely essential that veterinarians be well-educated in the area of bio-security.”

In the context of research, “We have research projects that involve bio-security issues in terms of contagious diseases.”

But he added that he thinks bio-security is especially relevant to the diagnostic lab. “It is absolutely critical through their diagnostic work in monitoring the occurrence … of these diseases that are bio-security issues.” These include keeping on the lookout for West Nile virus, avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and other threats.

For producers of intensive livestock and poultry operations, many have adopted strict bio-security measures to protect their businesses from accidental or intentional disease outbreaks.

However, for many farmers and ranchers, it might seem the danger from terrorists is an exaggeration. This isn’t something they worry about and they have not changed what they might have done six years ago on their farms.

Hopefully they are right, but as long as terrorist extremists are out there, one can never be certain.

Thankfully, they will have their local veterinarians as part of their first line of defence if and when needed.

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