Magazine article USA TODAY

Pets May Serve as Disease Watchdogs

Magazine article USA TODAY

Pets May Serve as Disease Watchdogs

Article excerpt

A national surveillance network that uses the medical records of pets could help prepare for a wide variety of emerging disease threats to humans and animals, including avian influenza, according to veterinary scientists at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

Larry Glickman, professor of epidemiology, designed the National Companion Animal Surveillance Program, which originally was created to alert people to potential anthrax or plague outbreaks. Between 2002-04, tests were conducted on more than 10,000,000 pet records to determine how the database could be used to monitor disease outbreaks.

"We discovered we can use analytical techniques to target specific geographic areas where vaccines need to be developed," Glickman explains. "This early warning will become critical to stop the spread of avian flu virus and other diseases that might affect humans. The quicker we can identity the problem in the more than 150,000,000 dogs, cats, or pet birds that live in approximately 40% of all households in the United States, the greater the probability we can contain a disease before it spreads to humans."

Based on the data, researchers found:

* A clear pattern of association between flea and tick infestation in pets compared to the incidence of Lyme disease in humans, with a two-month lag and peak rates occurring during warmer months. This information allows veterinarians to anticipate unusual outbreaks of diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans and design treatment methods. Health officials also could be alerted so they can provide timely information to the public and spray affected areas for ticks. In addition, specimens such as these can be used for profiling a broader variety of diseases that potentially could be transmitted to humans by fleas and ticks, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. …

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