Plum Island: Our Fortress Against Foreign Animal Diseases
By Tony Frazier
If you go to the northeast end of Long Island, New York, you will come to Orient Point. There is a ferry that goes back and forth to Plum Island. But you will not be able to get on the ferry unless you have specific business on the island and have been cleared to make the trip. Plum Island is home to the only foreign animal disease laboratory in the United States. It was owned by the United States Department of Agriculture from the establishment of the lab back in 1954 until the
U. S. Department of Homeland Security assumed ownership in 2003. If you do a Google search, you will find some bizarre, fabricated information about the things that go on there. As one person put it, when you put the words “government” and “disease laboratory” together, it makes for some really “out there” speculation.
In reality, the Plum Animal Disease Center was established in 1954 to conduct research on animal diseases and protect the national food supply. To me, the symbolism is not lost that there was a brief battle fought against the British in the Revolutionary War and in 1897 the army established an artillery post that was later named Fort Terry. During World War II, the fort was used as an anti-submarine base. It seems appropriate to me that the Island that was used to protect the country against early military threats is now used to protect us from biological threats.
I don’t remember the first time I heard about Plum Island, but as a veterinarian, I’m sure they talked about it some while we were in college and studying foreign animal diseases. The Disease Center took on a whole new significance when I became State Veterinarian. That is because it was during the time that there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease going on in the United Kingdom. If you are a regular reader of this column, you have probably memorized by now that somewhere between 6 and 8 million animals either died or were euthanized during that outbreak. When you are State Veterinarian, that sort of data will get your attention. That is the kind of information that will make you go right from Tums to Zantac in a hurry.
The fact that the military had found material in the caves of Afghanistan that outlined plans and procedures to use foreign animal diseases on animals here to devastate our economy brought the importance of the Plum Island laboratory front and center in the role it plays in protecting animal agriculture. That is also why the ownership was assumed by the Department of Homeland Security. It was at that time that my USDA colleagues indicated an urgent need for our state-employed veterinarians to go to Plum Island to be trained in foreign animal disease recognition and response.
I have never been to Plum Island, but it may be one of those things that is on my bucket list, if the opportunity ever presents itself. I have only seen it in pictures and through the eyes of our veterinarians who have been through their training course. Dr. Slaten went back in 2004 and he says it is by far the best educational experience he has had since graduating from veterinary school. As I write this article, our new Associate State Veterinarian Dr. Misty Edmondson is attending their course. Dr. Chris Bishop, one of our field veterinarians, has been to the course. And there was a time when almost all our laboratory veterinarians had attended the foreign animal disease course for laboratory workers. But we have had a fair amount of personnel turnover since then. That will be a priority for us to make sure everyone has been able to go through that training.
The Plum Island facility not only trains veterinarians to be Foreign Animal Disease Diagnosticians (FADD), but it is also the place where suspect tissues and blood samples are tested for foreign animal diseases. I found out just how serious they are about rapid diagnosis a few years ago when I was able to be part of an investigation for Malignant Catarrhal Fever. One of our FADDs and I were in close proximity to the suspect cow when it was reported. It was important to get a blood sample from a live animal because it is difficult to get a positive result after the animal dies. When we arrived at the farm, I am pretty sure the heifer could see the angels coming. However, we were able to get a blood sample from her while she was still alive. How seriously did they take making that diagnosis? A small jet was sent to take the sample back to Plum Island, where the cow was confirmed to be positive. Their diagnostic capabilities for foreign animal diseases are the best in the world.
In addition to training and research, the Plum Island facility works to develop vaccines against many of the devastating diseases we stand guard against. If we go back to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the
U. K. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there are a couple of concerns that come to my mind. First, if we responded the way the U.K. did, would 6-8 million animals be anywhere close to how many we would lose? My second concern is how the public and politicians would react if we had to put so many exposed animals down. I remember seeing the cremation pyres of the dead animals in the U.K. It would likely be met with a lot of resistance from our American public. However, if we could quarantine positive farms, and possibly euthanize those in what is considered the hot zone, then vaccinate a large buffer zone, we might not lose near as many animals as we would without the vaccine.
The Animal Disease Facility at Plum Island is a huge weapon in our arsenal against foreign animal diseases. It is not something most people are aware of. But it is not a place that is kept a secret. It was mentioned in the movie, “Silence of the Lambs,” when it was suggested as a possible place for Hannibal Lecter to go on vacation. I suspect most people did not pick up on that. I know I didn’t. It is worth noting that all the research done at Plum Island is well documented and published, and none of their work is classified. We are fortunate to have the facility and the people whose careers involve taking the ferry to work every day and taking a couple of showers on their way out the door every evening.