A Veterinarian's Role in a Disaster: Getting Involved at a National Level
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003
Mark Lloyd1, DVM; Barry Kellogg2, VMD; Suzanne Zeeve3, PhD
1Deputy Team Leader, VMAT 1, East Setauket, NY, USA; 2Team Leader, VMAT 1, Nokomis, FL, USA; 3Wildlife Conservation, Management and Medicine, Setauket, NY, USA


The role of the veterinary community in disaster response is critical to national security. Naturally occurring emergent diseases, agri-terrorism, and zoonotic biologic assaults depend heavily on the private sector for veterinary functions. Full-time federal veterinary employees are grossly inadequate in numbers and equipment for the task. The role of the veterinarian within the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) requires a preestablished relationship with the federal government. The Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMATs) are the only disaster responders sponsored by the AVMA/AVMF and funded through the NDMS. Zoological and wildlife veterinarians possess unique skills highly valuable to VMATs. Only four teams exist today, but the NDMS may be creating six more under the Department of Homeland Security. Zoological and wildlife veterinarians are strongly encouraged to become involved as VMAT disaster responders.

Zoological veterinarians may be on the front lines of disease diagnosis as exemplified by the role of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in West Nile virus identification. Zoological institutions are not exempt from involvement in disasters themselves. Recently, 4.7 million poultry were euthanatized in the eradication of avian influenza just 100 miles from the Center for Research and Conservation (CRC) in Front Royal, Virginia. The VMAT was there. The endangered status of reservoir species in a zoological collection would be no exemption from immediate disposal in a federal eradication program.

Natural disasters are indiscriminate in their destruction and may include conservation institutions. Miami Zoo can attest to the indiscriminate devastation of hurricane Andrew. The VMAT was there. Even in the World Trade Center disaster response, veterinarians played a unique, yet key role. The VMAT was there. Wildlife and zoological veterinarians may join a VMAT Disaster Response Team by using the information to follow. They may be involved in confronting biologic threats, both emerging diseases and intentional terrorist events.1,2

What's a VMAT? Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams were developed through the National Disaster Medical System, now under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and remain the only veterinary disaster response forces under the federal disaster response plan. Sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF), the VMATs are the only veterinary disaster response team they are willing to put their name on and support.2,3

The VMATs are composed of multidiscipline veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and animal care professionals in a public/private partnership. Currently, the VMATs are sorely lacking wildlife and zoological veterinarians. Zoological and wildlife vets are strongly encouraged to become involved. More are needed to expand the teams to the projected numbers. Several team leaders will be sought for the new VMATs to be formed in the near future. Members of AAZV could be prime candidates for leadership positions.

The VMATs are voluntary, intermittent, full-time paid federal employees deployed on an as-needed basis for emerging disease eradication, natural disasters, and veterinary mission support within the United States and its territories. Pay grades are based on credentials and duty station. Typical deployments are 14 days for 12 h each day. Requests are made directly from the NDMS for a defined number of deployable team members. Any team member may decline or accept any deployment for any reason that need not be divulged. Upon request by the NDMS, the team member may choose to repeat 14-day deployments if the mission is ongoing.

Team members are covered by employment protection within the Department of Homeland Security. This makes it difficult for employers to legally refuse to allow time off for deployments. No legal reprisals may be lodged against an individual serving their country as a VMAT member. Critical protection is provided to volunteers who are not self-employed.

Transportation is arranged by NDMS for the team members deployed to the mission site. Personal protective equipment, veterinary equipment and logistic needs are already available upon arrival. Biosecurity and safety equipment to perform the job is also provided upon request. Needs lists are created by the VMATs as soon as the inventory can be checked and the list can be submitted. Equipment is rapidly delivered from NDMS to achieve the mission.

Each team maintains medical and equipment caches including large tents and field accommodations. The largest medical caches are strategically placed by the NDMS for immediate delivery to the site. More caches will be created as more teams are assembled.

Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992. The need for a plan for animals in disasters was clearly evident. Not only were live displaced animals a concern, but animal carcasses posed a significant human health risk as well. The veterinary community was overwhelmed with requests. No comprehensive animal disaster plan existed for Florida until after the lessons of Hurricane Andrew.1

How does a deployment happen? As local resources are overwhelmed, help is requested from state resources. When state resources are found inadequate, the governor must request disaster declaration. Only the U.S. President may declare a National Disaster. Once the President declares a disaster, funds are "released" to address the situation. As always, cash is the key. Federal resources are made available for VMATs. The nomenclature has changed since that time. Now VMATs and NDMS are under the DHS. However, the chain of disaster response remains relatively unchanged.

In addition to providing biosecurity and surveillance for animal disease outbreaks such as avian influenza, VMAT members have been deployed to the Houston flood, Hurricane Floyd, and the New Mexico fires as part of the MST. At the Democratic National Convention, Presidential Inauguration, 56th United Nations General Assembly, Special Olympics, and Winter Olympics, VMATs provided security support. Search and Rescue veterinary support was provided for the Alaska air crash and New York City World Trade Center by VMATs as well.

The World Trade Center disaster was a unique and tragic experience for VMAT members. Many of the early responders are still haunted by the repulsive human and architectural remains. The VMATs provided intensive 24 h support for over 300 Search and Rescue dogs from around the world. The mission rapidly digressed from a search and rescue mission to a search and body recovery mission. It became clearly evident that victim survival was unrealistic.

On some difficult deployments situations, VMATs may be required to be self-sufficient for the first 3 days. Each member maintains a "jump pack" that will provide essential personal equipment upon arrival. NDMS has stated intentions to create 10 teams. The current VMAT status includes four teams. Team size has also been raised from 20–30, to a team size of 45–60 members each. Dedicated veterinarians are needed today. Zoological veterinarians are in particularly short supply throughout the nation.

The current teams include VMAT 1-North East, VMAT 2-Mid Atlantic, VMAT 3-Southeast, and VMAT 4-Southwest. Members for the newly created VMAT 5 in the Midwest are still needed. Wildlife and zoological veterinarians are urged to become members of these teams and assist in creation of new teams as the program grows under the auspices of NDMS and AVMA.

Large and small animal rescue is frequently involved in a disaster situation. Wildlife become displaced and disoriented and require capture, treatment, and translocation. Remote immobilization may be required in any species. In the midst of a hurricane, an Arab stallion may act more like a zebra stallion. Wildlife and zoological veterinarians are key players in a disaster.

Field training exercises are provided and financially subsidized to familiarize team members with emerging or exotic diseases, chemical and biologic weapons, treatment, decontamination, and agriterrorism. The focus of training has shifted to intensive study of emerging and foreign animal diseases as bio-weapons from a historic focus on natural disasters. Unfortunately, chemo- and bio-terrorism planning and preparation are critical.

Online training programs are available through the NDMS Office of Emergency Response (OER) and the University of Maryland. Topics include wildlife restraint, wildlife immobilization, animal decontamination and over 100 more disease, medical and disaster topics and information. Several more topics are seeking authors to complete them.

Field hospitals are established at training exercises and deployment sites. Several large veterinary caches of medical equipment are maintained in at least two sites on both the East and West coasts by the NDMS for immediate release and delivery to a deployment site within 24 h of activation.

Individual teams have equipment and supplies including portable fencing panels for large animals, remote immobilization equipment, surgical and hospital/housing tents. Some teams have created Remote Response Back Packs, set up in pairs, one large animal pack and one small. A two-person team for fieldwork has all the bases covered for remote treatment and rescue.

Biosecurity and disease surveillance are critical to the epizootiology and eradication of emerging or foreign animal diseases. The VMATs are on the front lines of disease surveillance and play a critical role as a strike force for elimination of emerging diseases.

Chemo-terrorism and hazardous materials are present dangers of "modern civilization." The VMATs prepare for response to both. Chemical and biologic warfare may affect any institution including zoological institutions. Entertainment centers are considered terrorist targets.

Biosecurity to minimize disease transmission within an institution plays the key role in keeping biologic agents at the entrance gate. Biosecurity requires a lot of work to do properly. Even the addition of a simple footbath requires a commitment to using it appropriately. In an emergent disease outbreak, biosecurity is assured by VMATs as animals are tested, evaluated, treated or humanely euthanatized and removed from contaminated premises. When foreign animal or emergent diseases strike, millions of animals may need to be disposed of in a rapid and secure manner. Veterinarians are trained to perform tasks using biosecure methods.4

Routine biosecure husbandry practices set the stage to minimize spread of disease from outside an institution. Zoological institutions are not exempt from bioterrorist or naturally occurring emerging diseases. The obvious visual barrier of the perimeter fence is blurry at best to disease busters hot on the heels of emergent disease eradication. Avian influenza came dangerously close to Front Royal, VA. In an outbreak of agricultural and/or financial significance, perimeter fences will be of little significance.

Neither the disease nor the depopulation teams consider the conservation status heavily before exacting their toll on captive or wild animals. The VMAT Avian Influenza surveillance teams came within a hundred miles of endangered species in breeding and research programs. One confirmed positive in 50,000 and the entire group will be depopulated within 24 h.

A zoological institution may be considered a potential reservoir of the emerging or foreign animal disease. In fact, zoological institutions full of exotic animals are frequently prime suspects as point sources of exotic diseases. Good records and an aggressive surveillance sampling record are the best defense for zoological collections.

Municipal water supplies are considered likely terrorist targets. Municipal water supply contamination, intentional or accidental, can affect any captive animal facility as well. Alternative emergency water sources for long-term needs of a zoological institution are almost nonexistent.

Even short-term water storage capabilities of zoos are limited.

The 2002 avian influenza (AI) outbreak devastated the poultry industry and agriculture of the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia. Almost 5 million birds were euthanatized over 6+ mo. Wildlife and zoological veterinarians were a small part of the response. Although a wildlife surveillance section was listed on the USDA Incident Action Plan, when asked about the plan for wildlife, they decided not to test wild birds because they didn't know what to do if they found AI in the wild population. More wildlife and zoological veterinarians are urgently needed on every team in the country. As of summer 2002, the Virginia AI outbreak had been suppressed, although it reappeared in the spring of 2003 in New England.

Exotic Newcastle disease (END) gripped much of southern California and was already identified in the Arizona and the Midwest at the time of this manuscript submission. The likelihood of a long-term eradication program for END will require involvement of the private and zoological veterinary community to be successful.

A skilled wildlife or zoo veterinarian would be a valuable asset to every team. Both domestic and wild animals revert to instinctive behaviors if displaced and disoriented in a disaster. The key clinical skills and the resourcefulness of zoological and wildlife veterinarians would be invaluable in a biologic or natural disaster.

Individuals interested in veterinary response to national disasters including emerging disease outbreaks and natural disasters should contact the AVMA or an individual team of interest. The contact at AVMA is Dr. Cindy Lovern (clovern@avma.org). Alternatively, you may examine the website www.VMAT1.org with hyperlinks to the AVMA, NDMS and other VMAT Internet sites. The USDA APHIS website provides more information on foreign animal diseases, disease outbreaks, and emerging diseases (aphis.usda.gov/vs/ep/fad_training/bibpage.htm). (VIN editor: link could not be accessed on 2-12-21)

Literature Cited

1.  Chan, S.D., W.K. Baker, and D.L. Guerrero. 1999. Resources for Crisis Management in Zoos and Other Animal Care Facilities. AAZK, Topeka, KS.

2.  Lloyd, M.L., In Press. Disaster medicine for shelter veterinarians. In: Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff. ASPCA, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

3.  Lundin, C.S. 1996. AVMA Emergency Preparedness and Response Guide. AVMA, Schaumberg, IL.

4.  Schroeder, R.J. 1987. Veterinary services in disasters and emergencies. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 190(6):701–799.


Speaker Information
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Mark Lloyd, DVM
East Setauket, NY, USA

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