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Cattle Disease Poses Threat To Run Wild, U.S. Finds

April 17, 2001 The New York Times by Elizabeth Becker

The first comprehensive exercise about how the nation would contain foot-and-mouth disease showed that an outbreak could be stopped only with the combined strength of all federal disaster agencies, including the military, Agriculture Department officials have said.

After decades of relying largely on state and local governments to help contain animal diseases, the Department of Agriculture asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a plan to combat this one as forcefully as if it threatened human lives, said Clifford Oliver, director of the Agriculture Department's office of crisis planning.

"We were coming to the realization that state and local government would be overwhelmed and the U.S.D.A. would be overwhelmed if foot-and-mouth broke out," Mr. Oliver said.

With Britain, one of the most advanced agricultural nations, enduring an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease and British troops belatedly called in for mass burials of hundreds of thousands of slaughtered animals, American farmers and ranchers began lobbying their state agriculture chiefs for better planning. Those officials recently urged Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman to find out what the rest of the government could do to contain an outbreak.

The federal Catastrophic Disaster Response Group, which normally worries about bioterrorism or industrial disasters, organized the tabletop exercise for the Agriculture Department on Wednesday, bringing together representatives of 26 agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Interior, Energy and Health and Human Services, Mr. Oliver said.

The exercise confirmed fears that without the entire government working to contain it, the disease would spread like wildfire if it ever reached this country.

"They made it very very clear in the first 15 minutes of the exercise that the possibility of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is very real and we need to be better prepared," said a participant who would not allow his name to be used.

Mr. Oliver said, "For the first time we asked this group to look at a biological event that doesn't affect humans[Common misconception], only animals."

The situation was played out like a military war game, with agency representatives acting out how they would react if foot-and-mouth broke out in Iowa. Participants said that the computer-generated model could not be controlled and that the disease spread to three states within 60 days, requiring 50,000 people to contain it.

The virus that causes the disease could pass through the intestines of birds feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. When those birds fly to adjoining farms, they could spread the disease through their feces, far ahead of containment efforts, the exercise showed.

With the explosion of world trade making the spread of the disease to this country more likely and with the routine movement of animals around the nation making the containment more difficult, several participants said the exercise showed how an outbreak here could quickly become a national emergency.

"You would see the National Guard called out to kill thousands of animals in the first days and deployed to control traffic and keep thousands of people out of the area," another participant said.

A representative from the United States Geological Survey was especially troubled by questions about how wildlife like deer, bison and wild pigs would be treated if they roamed near the infected areas.

"If the disease infected a herd of white tail deer in the state of Virginia, would they be slaughtered, too?" the representative asked.


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