for National Geographic News
Companion animals are being drafted into the U.S. war against terrorism.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau recently deployed specially trained dogs to borders and ports to sniff out smuggled chemical weapons. And a new surveillance system, being developed by the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University in Indiana, will scan veterinary records for outbreaks of illnesses caused by biological agents or chemicals. Animals could be the first to show signs of a covert chemical attack, possibly alerting health officials days before infection is discovered in humans.
"We're really looking at pets as sentinels, knowing that many of the bioterrorist threats that have been identified as possibilities are just as much threats to pets as they are to people," said Hugh Lewis, Banfield Pet Hospitals' senior vice president of practice development. Banfield Pet Hospitals is a U.S. national private animal healthcare network that treats about 2.8 million dogs and cats each year.
Dogs and cats may well show signs of infection first, explained Lewis, because disease often develops faster in smaller species.
Almost all of the high priority pathogens identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as most likely to be used by terrorist organizations can affect both people and animals. Easily transmitted diseases include anthrax, botulism, and plague.
Purdue's Veterinary Medical Data-Surveillance of Syndromes will be the first of its kind, once it has been completed. The surveillance system will scan Banfield's medical records on a regular basis for signs associated with infection from biological agents, such as renal or neurological problems.
If an outbreak occurs, epidemiologists, scientists who track diseases, will be able to determine if it was deliberately unleashed or naturally occurring. Based on veterinary records, researchers can then see where the disease is spreading and how fast.
Human medical centers do not have a comparable national surveillance system, said Lewis. Most medical complexes are local or regional and there is no consistency in data collection or medical records.
Banfield has 325 hospitals located throughout the country and each uses the same software. The information is uploaded once a week to the company's main database in Portland, Oregon. But Lewis says that will soon change. The hospital plans to replace its current system with a Web-based version, which will allow epidemiologists to look at information on a daily, instead of weekly, basis.
While the main focus is on bioterrorism, the surveillance system will also detect naturally occurring and zoonotic diseases like West Nile Virus, which affects both people and animals.
The first canine case of West Nile was discovered late last year in Illinois. Early detection of diseases, Lewis said, will enable communities to set up preventative measures to stop the spread.
But for now, the surveillance system is still in the development stages and needs "significant" funding to become a reality, said Lewis.
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