Two Iowa State University veterinary medicine faculty address international agroterrorism symposium May 2-5

AMES, Iowa -- If a terrorist strike comes in the form of a deadly, contagious livestock disease, will we be prepared?

No, say two Iowa State University veterinarians who have been invited to speak at the first International Symposium on Agroterrorism, May 2-5, in Kansas City, Mo. The meeting is sponsored by the FBI and the Heart of America Joint Terrorism Task Force. About 700 people will attend.

The faculty are Dr. James Roth, Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor in Veterinary Medicine, and director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health; and Dr. Scott Hurd, associate professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine.

"The livestock industry is vulnerable to the use of a foreign animal disease as a terrorist weapon," said Roth. A foreign animal disease (FAD) is a disease not present in the United States.

Roth's talk, "Agroterrorism: Impacts on Animal and Human Health," will present an overview of why livestock are vulnerable to agroterrorism, the impacts on public health, what diseases pose the biggest threat and what can be done to improve preparedness.

"Livestock in the U.S. have no immunity and have not been vaccinated against FADs. Many of the FADs are zoonotic, meaning they infect both animals and people, so they pose a complex threat," Roth said.

"Foot-and-mouth disease, Rift Valley fever, Nipah virus and avian influenza are four of the top threats," Roth said. "Foot-and-mouth disease doesn't affect humans like the other three can, but it is extremely contagious. An outbreak here would be economically devastating."

The other three are zoonotic and can be fatal. In a 1998-99 outbreak of Nipah virus in Malaysia, 50 percent of the people who contracted it died, Roth said. He is developing a livestock vaccine for Nipah virus.

"To enhance our preparedness, scientists need to ramp up our work on developing vaccines that can protect U.S. livestock against these diseases," Roth said.

"We also need to increase our nation's capacity in terms of research scientists and laboratories. What we have now is not adequate for the demands. The U.S. does not have a Biosafety Level 4 facility for food animal disease research. Some of my research on Nipah virus, for example, can only be done in Canada or Australia, where they have high containment facilities," he said.

"We are a victim of our own success in the U.S. We've done such a good job of keeping these diseases out that we haven't adequately invested in the animal health infrastructure," Roth said.

Hurd will speak at the symposium on May 5. His talk, "FAD Investigation: Timing is Everything," will focus on detecting and responding to a foreign animal disease.

"Unlike other crimes, we have an added dimension of time and disease spread. There's a time lag of five to seven days between the infection and its discovery. From a crime investigation standpoint, that's a problem. Neighboring herds can become infected and infected animals can travel and mingle with other animals," Hurd said.

"Another issue is that FAD infection isn't a criminal act in and of itself. So veterinarians or producers don't automatically call law enforcement," he said.

"We need to get law enforcement in the loop and get a handle on the movement of animals in this country," Hurd said.

Hurd proposes a database to track movement of livestock across state lines.

Hurd says foot-and-mouth is the disease most likely to be used for agroterrorism. "It's easy to find, easy to move and easy to get into animals," Hurd said.

"If foot-and-mouth disease came to Iowa, we couldn't cull herds fast enough," he said. "It would be like a prairie fire through the state. In one way or another, every cow, pig, sheep and deer in the state would be affected."