State readies animal-disease emergency response plan

By CHARLEY GILLESPIE, Associated Press Writer

REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio (AP) - The state is practicing disease identification, rumor control and setting up quarantines in case of an accidental or terrorist-induced outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Ohio's first drill conducted in October in Licking County revealed gaps in the emergency response plan, including communication among law enforcement and an ability to quarantine large areas, said state veterinarian David Glauer said.

A second practice run will be held this spring.

The threat of foot-and-mouth disease is more financial than physical. Just one case of disease would cause irreparable harm to the nation's agriculture industry, which accounts for 22 million jobs and 16.4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. For that reason, Ohio would be a tempting target for a bioterrorist.

The food and agriculture industry contributes $73 billion to Ohio's economy each year and supplies one in six Ohio jobs, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

"This disease is feared by any animal industry because it spreads like wildfire," Glauer said. "It is the scourge of the earth."

The disease sickens cloven-footed animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and deer, often killing the young ones. Infected animals develop blisters on the mouth, nose, feet and teats. The disease causes fever, shivering, weight loss and reduces milk and meat yield.

Foot-and-mouth hasn't been seen in the United States since 1929. But outbreaks around the world and the possibility of bioterrorism attacks have forced government agencies to develop disaster plans.

Ohio started revamping its plan in 2001 after an outbreak prompted the United Kingdom to slaughter 4 million animals.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fears of agriterrorism escalated and the state began mapping out its response plan with tabletop exercises.

The state is receiving $34.9 million from the $1.1 billion earmarked for states from the bioterrorism funding bill that Congress approved last year.

Ohio's plan includes teams from 11 state agencies doing jobs that range from rumor control, identification of the disease, establishing a quarantine zone and disposal of the diseased animals.

Workers dressed in containment suits, set up decontamination stations and determined a way to get rid of all animals on the site and dispose of their bodies.

They also worked on details such as how blood samples are taken from animals and sent to Plum Island, N.Y., the national lab for testing.

Ohio tests samples at its state lab in Reynoldsburg, a Columbus suburb, for various diseases. Testing for foot-and-mouth can be done only on Plum Island where there is less risk of spreading the disease.

If there were an outbreak, roads would be closed and animals would be killed, possibly by the thousands. The movement of cattle would be stopped across the Midwest, depending on how long the disease went unnoticed and where infected animals were transported for sale or slaughter.

Other states that have done similar bioterrorism drills include Montana, South Dakota, Washington, North Carolina, Iowa, Indiana and Oregon.

Glauer said Ohio's first drill revealed how difficult it was setting up a large quarantine zone.

"My concern was how the law enforcement team would play into this plan so that we could control this disease," he said.

The original plan called for a quarantine zone with a perimeter of about six miles, but that proved to be too difficult.

"We determined that the local law enforcement, without outside assistance, could only put together an initial perimeter of a mile to a mile and half," said Denny Tomcik, field operations chief for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. "It would take 18 to 24 hours before we could get large numbers of National Guard personnel in to fully expand that perimeter and man it on a constant basis."

A quarantine zone is needed because the virus that causes the disease can be carried by humans, in throat and nasal passages and on clothing and shoes.

Limiting access to the area also would help control unsubstantiated reports of an uncontrolled disease outbreak that could devastate domestic cattle markets and undercut exports.

"Once you have foot-and-mouth disease identified in your country you are excluded from the global marketplace," Glauer said. "The sooner you can destroy positive animals, the sooner you can get back into that economy."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)