Animal Sentinels vs Biological terrorism

Biological terrorism used in the U.S. might take hours or days to detect, as an infection slowly spread.

U.S. hospitals don’t routinely share information about infections. Health officials dream of a computerized database connecting the nation’s health clinics and emergency rooms — but that dream is years from reality. In the meantime, Larry Glickman — who studies animal disease at Purdue University — says we might access another kind of health network — that of animal hospitals. He’s working with Banfield, the Pet Hospital — with 300 U.S. locations and three million pets as patients per year.

Larry Glickman: And it turns out all their medical records are. . . uploaded nightly to one central location. So we had the idea of using the pet dogs and cats that go to these clinics as a surveillance system and a rapid detection system for outbreaks of bioterrorism-related disease.

Many of the viruses, bacteria and chemicals that could be used as biological weapons might affect cats and dogs even more quickly than humans, according to Glickman. His ideas are being supported now by Purdue — while he’s applied for funding to develop the software and procedures needed to analyze the Banfield data.

Banfield, The Pet Hospital

The Banfield animal hospitals — which operate in 40 states — see about 50,000 animals each week. Larry Glickman — professor of veterinary epidemiology at Purdue University — says, “40 percent of households have pets. It’s a built in, naturally occurring sentinel.” Most biological agents that might be used as weapons — except for small pox — affect humans in the same way as animals.

Glickman’s team has sent grant proposals to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and the new Department of Homeland Security. He expects to hear about the NIH grant by June [2003]. Because Homeland Security is a new department, he isn’t sure how quickly he might hear back.

If they receive funding, Glickman says, “We would determine what specific information we want on a regular basis, they [Banfield] would send it to us, we would develop the capability to analyze patterns — like unusual cases in one area at a time … we would have to show that it’s unusual and then try to determine it’s cause …” If a pattern was found, they would contact local vets. The vets would look more closely at the animals and get samples for further tests. They would also alert the human medical providers in the same area.

The researchers will have to demonstrate that they can transfer the data and analyze it quickly. They’ll have to develop statistical techniques for analysis. They’ll have to train personnel to review the data in real time. They’ll need to develop software that can present data in a visual way and even generate images for public health officials to view on the Web.

Hugh Lewis — Vice President of Banfield, The Pet Hospital, the network of clinics that would supply the raw medical data for the new project — says, “We’re a paperless practice focused only on pets, so we generate everything through a computer. We have very sophisticated software called ‘PetWare’ that collects a huge amount of information. When we examine a pet, all the history, plus all the clinical findings are recorded on the computer system – even negative information. So if we find that in the history a pet was walked on a leash, this relates to the environment a pet lives in. If we find that a pet is leash walked … that immediately goes into the database. If we further ask the owner ‘does the owner ever get off the leash or go to dog parks?’ – that might add a level of exposure. So there is a running collection of information. Even if it’s negative. The owner says ‘no’ to a question. That’s entered as well. This is important. Our database is unique in that it’s the only national medical database – it’s in 40 states. That’s why it’s interesting to the early warning folks. We record all the information that’s available, not just the diagnosis — all the symptoms and the history too.”

Glickman says, “There’s no model for this. People would like to do this with hospitals, where the systems are all different for data. The speeds of data are all different. The strength here is that the vets already have that capability. So we’re light years ahead. … For human medical records, researchers are trying to figure out ‘How do you collect data immediately? How do you get it to one place? How do you make it consistent?’ We think we have a system in place, it’s a matter of getting the resources to try it.”

Hugh Lewis pointed out that these new analytical tools that Glickman and other researchers are developing might eventually be applied to other early detection systems that rely on other kinds of data — such as daycare absenteeism, sales of over the counter medicines, or human medical data from hospitals and emergency clinics.

There is a long history of animals being used to provide early warning systems for hazards to humans. In 1916, the U.S. Bureau of Mines released a report that said:

“Birds and mice may be used to detect carbon monoxide, because they are much more sensitive to the poisonous action of the gas than are men. Experiments by the Bureau of Mines show that canaries should be used in preference to mice, sparrows, or pigeons, because canaries are more sensitive to the gas. Rabbits, chickens, guinea pits, or dogs although useful for exploration work in mines, should be used only when birds or mice are unobtainable, and then cautiously, because of their greater resistance to carbon monoxide poisoning. Many experiments have shown that if a canary is quickly removed to good air after its collapse from breathing carbon monoxide it always recovers and can be used again and again for exploration work without danger of it becoming less sensitive. Breathing apparatus must be used where birds show signs of distress, and for this reason birds are of great value in enabling rescue parties to use breathing apparatus to best advantage.” (George A. Burrell and Frank M. Seibert, “Gases Found in Coal Mines,” Miner’s Circular 14, Bureau of Mines, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1916)

More excerpts from interview with Larry Glickman:

“Of the infectious agents that have been listed as bioterrorist threat agents, all but one affects animals as well as people – the only one that affects people that doesn’t affect animals is small pox. And second, the signs and symptoms that we see in animals is very similar to what we see in humans and the time of onset is similar in animals and humans.”

“… that is, clusters of an unusual sign or symptom in a given geographic area and then follow up to see what’s causing that. So i think the systems in place it’s a matter if we’re smart enough and have the resources enough to utilize that information.”

“There’s no similar system currently available on that scale using human medical data. So I think Veterinarians have a unique opportunity to play a significant role in this war on bioterrorism.”

What you have in your mind?