WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) – The first casualties of bioterrorism attack could be pets, not humans, says a state bioterrorism education coordinator who is touring Massachusetts to encourage people to learn how to recognize signs of diseases in animals.

Recognizing the signs in animals could help officials respond to an attack before it becomes a serious outbreak, Maxene R. Armour, bioterrorism education coordinator for the Department of Agricultural Resources, told the Worcester Sunday Telegram.

“A biological release of an organism for terrorist purposes might not be recognized right away, unlike a chemical release,” Armour said. “It could be days or weeks before something’s recognized.”

Armour is holding public forums around the state to raise awareness, and also to encourage communities to develop plans for what to do with animals in case of an emergencies, whether manmade or natural disaster.

Potential bioterrorism weapons identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention naturally occur in animals and can be transmitted from them to humans, she told the Telegram.

Anthrax, plague, and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola would affect animals first, unless specifically targeted as weapons against humans, and all can jump between animals and humans, she said.

The state also suggests communities develop plans for what to do with animals in the event of an emergency. Animals usually are not allowed into shelters set up for people, and some people are reluctant to abandon their animals.

Armour reports mixed results at her meetings, some of which are packed, while others empty.

Worcester horse owner Erik Petersham said it’s not constructive to tell animal owners that their sick pets might be bioterrorism warning signals. It will create frenzy, he said.

“I think it’s a waste of time,” he said. “If it’s going to be a contagious, biotech kind of thing, we’re going to die, too.”

AP-ES-04-11-04 0727EDT

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