DHS officials ponder effects of foot-and-mouth outbreak
Spread of disease in United States would cost the economy billions.
The Homeland Security Department's senior adviser for weapons of mass destruction said late last week that the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease on American soil would have a tremendous effect on the U.S. economy, whether the outbreak is intentional or accidental.
Maureen McCarthy, the weapons adviser, on Friday told attendees of the Association for Intelligence Officers' annual convention that such an outbreak would cost the American agriculture economy "hundreds of billions" of dollars and could shutter some trade borders for "years" if officials deem it necessary.
"It will happen instantly," she said of the financial and trade impact, "even if there are no deaths."
During a discussion that in part focused on how biological agents might be used against the United States, McCarthy said foot-and-mouth disease could be used by terrorists. However, she told Government Executive after the discussion that there is no existing intelligence indicating such a plot.
Still, she said, because of the nation's dependence on its domestic agriculture, the industry might be a salient target. "We have an agrarian nation," McCarthy said. She added that simultaneous breakouts of foot-and-mouth disease in several locations could be a signal of an attack.
Last year, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the potential for a biological attack on the U.S. agricultural system is a "priority concern."
Acknowledging the potential for disastrous consequences for the agriculture industry and the American economy, Kimothy Smith, DHS chief veterinarian and acting director of national biosurveillance, said that in the event of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, it would be possible to implement import bans on a nation-by-nation basis.
The disease is worrisome to health officials because it is highly contagious among cloven-hoofed animals, and can spread even in freezing temperatures. The disease does not infect humans. There has not been an outbreak in the United States since 1929. However, infection rates in some other countries have grown to endemic proportions, McCarthy said.
She said Pakistan and Afghanistan have had the highest rates of infection, but said other regions - including South America and Southeast Asia - also have reported outbreaks. Last month, China reported cases of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle.
The malady also was discovered in England in 2001, after illegally imported and tainted pork was fed to livestock.
Since its inception, DHS has sought to curtail the possibility of a biological attack or disease outbreak. Homeland Security and Agriculture officials have collaborated to boost preparedness and research against such threats.
The Agriculture Department in 2002 created the Office of Food Safety and Emergency Response to better structure coordination in the event of a disease outbreak; the department also took steps to create better surveillance of the industry in recent years.
In 2003, DHS took control of the Agriculture Department's Plum Island Animal Disease Center but continued to coordinate with agriculture officials in running the New York-based laboratories. DHS' grants program has boosted university funding for research of agriculture and disease as well.
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