Vets form front-line against agroterror
The joint convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the World Veterinary Congress, examining agro-terrorism, is an indicator of the seriousness of the threat of terrorism. Agro-terrorism has long been a neglected area when security concerns focus on bio-terrorism. Security officials felt that the destructiveness that the attacks on September 11 heralded was focused on casualties and destruction of infrastructure. There have been fears that terrorist might move to weapon of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism, as evidenced by the Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack and the Anthrax and Ricin mailing in the US . While agricultural had sometimes been used as a warfare tactic, it was not seen as a ‘big bang for the buck’ that, at least, al-Qaeda terrorism tactics seem to evoke. The mistake in minimizing cattle or other animal deaths was not thinking of the agricultural sector as a major national infrastructure and an economic target. The attack on the US had major economic repercussions initially, and other terrorist attacks worldwide have been aimed at debilitating the tourism sector, as was witnessed in Sharm el-Sheik (see this WAR). In terms of what we know as naturally occurring disease outbreaks, such as the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in the UK and other epidemics affecting the avian and swine stocks in Asia, have cost countries enormous economic losses. Terrorists may, indeed, want to attack economic targets, perhaps by poisoning parts of the food supply chain, and the recent spate of new disease and zoonotic disease outbreaks might cause harm to human populations if they were deliberately introduced. In the last few years, outbreaks of avian influenza have jumped to humans; West Nile Virus, SARS, and a new disease, the Sichuan Illness, have journeyed from infected swine populations to humans. Recently, in China , migratory birds have been found with high fatality rates for the HSN1 virus. There are fears that the Avian Influenza virus could combine with a human one and create a super-virus or a pandemic. Frighteningly, if these viruses mutate ? either naturally or induced — animals would be the vectors. Some diseases may not need to be manipulated, and apparently, a list of diseases was found scrawled in a cave in Afghanistan . If any of these diseases were deliberately introduced into livestock or the wildlife population, it could become a form of bio-terrorism. Other, more direct methods would include tampering with the food supply or poisoning milk or water supplies with agents like the botulism toxin, as warned of in a recent National Academy of Science report. Better security safeguards and surveillance are the keys to preventing an agro-terrorism incident. Having individuals trained to look for warning and indications at all stages of the agriculture and livestock industries and of the health of wildlife are keys. It is important to have more vets available in case of an outbreak, but the network of response goes beyond just vets. It is an area in which many individuals, groups, and institutions will need to work together, and resources will be needed. Traditionally, agro-terrorism has been viewed as a low threat, but perhaps that thinking should be reconsidered.