Schaumburg, IL –As pet owners have become aware that anthrax is primarily an animal disease, concern has emerged regarding the risk of exposure to anthrax in veterinary clinics. To allay these fears, the American Veterinary Medical Association has prepared the attached fact sheet on anthrax to provide the public with reliable information and to help calm fears that have become commonplace after recent anthrax exposures. Regularly updated information also may be accessed on the association’s Web site at www.avma.org.
Although anthrax as an animal disease has a worldwide distribution, the incidence of the disease in animals is extremely low in the United States. Animal species most susceptible to the disease include cattle, sheep, and goats.
Veterinarians who practice in areas of the country where anthrax occurs naturally may occasionally treat anthrax patients, but risk of exposure to anthrax in veterinary clinics and hospitals is currently so low as to be a nonissue.
Veterinarians are, however, an important line of defense in preventing anthrax in animal populations and, as part of that effort, veterinarians do have access to animal anthrax vaccines to protect their patients.
“Veterinarians may vaccinate certain livestock to prevent anthrax but it would be in areas of the country where anthrax is endemic, such as in the Southwest and Midwest,” said Lisa Conti, DVM, MPH, Florida State Public Health Veterinarian.
“Companion animal practitioners usually do not have the vaccine in their clinics because the disease is almost never seen in their patients,” explained Dr. Conti. “It is important to understand that the strain used to produce the animal anthrax vaccine is ‘nonvirulent.’ It will not cause disease.” Dr. Conti also emphasized that this vaccine is intended only for use in animals, not humans.
Anthrax organisms, used in research facilities to develop and test vaccines and other protective measures, are tightly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture, and are stored in areas with stringent biosecurity.
Because of their expertise, public health veterinarians were recently called upon to determine whether anthrax organisms responsible for the human death in southern Florida were from a strain that might occur naturally in that area.
“In bioterrorism, ‘first response’ teams may include veterinarians and other medical professionals in addition to more traditional ‘first responders’ such as local law enforcement, FBI, fire, and emergency services,” said Leslie Tengelsen, PhD, DVM. Dr. Tengelsen, Idaho’s deputy state epidemiologist, teaches veterinarians how to work with public health officials and how to prepare for incidents of bioterrorism.
Many potential agents of bioterrorism are zoonotic (transmissible between animals and humans). Veterinarians are trained to recognize the signs of disease caused by those agents in animals and humans. For this reason, their immediate involvement in detective efforts is critical.
“Veterinary reports become vital because rapid detection can lead to rapid resolution,” Tengelsen said. “Conversely, a delay in reporting can give way to unmentionable devastation.”
“Other health professionals rely on veterinary expertise in the areas of zoonotic disease, herd health management (maintaining the health of large populations), effective medical treatment, and preventive medicine,” explained Dr. Michael Auslander, DVM, MSPH, Kentucky Public Health Veterinarian.
“For example, physicians rarely see diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. When they do, they may try to treat the infection with a variety of antibiotics before prescribing tetracycline, which is the preferred treatment,” said Dr. Auslander. Dr. Auslander noted that nearly 73% of new and emerging diseases are zoonotic, whereas only 49% of other infectious diseases are zoonotic.
Veterinarians also serve as watchdogs for diseases that may be brought in from foreign countries, such as foot-and-mouth disease.
“Although foot-and-mouth disease does not directly affect humans, it does present serious risks for U.S. livestock,” explained Dr. Auslander.
A sophisticated surveillance and reporting system has strengthened ties between public health and veterinary professionals and has facilitated information gathering and sharing with nontraditional sources and recipients, such as 911, Dial-a-Nurse, pharmacies, humane societies, and universities.
In addition to anthrax organisms, veterinarians can assist in tracking potential agents of bioterrorism that cause plague, tularemia, Q fever, and brucellosis.
The AVMA is a professional organization comprising more than 66,000 veterinarians dedicated to advancing the science and art of veterinary medicine, including its relationship to public health and agriculture. Visit the AVMA Web site at www.avma.org.