State health departments, emergency management agencies and doctors throughout the Great Lakes region are re-examining their emergency plans after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Officials say they need to increase their planning to prepare for a bioterrorist attack. Such an attack could mean the release of deadly diseases into a general population and officials say there’s no way the public health structure could handle such an outbreak right now. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Scheck has more:
State health departments, emergency management agencies and doctors throughout the Great Lakes region are re-examining their emergency plans after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Officials say they need to increase their planning to prepare for a bioterrorist attack. Such an attack could mean the release of deadly diseases into a general population and officials say there’s no way the public health structure could handle such an outbreak right now. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Scheck reports…
As the nation tries to recover from the terrorist attacks in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington DC, infectious disease experts are using the tragedies to highlight that the nation’s skies and borders are not the only things the federal government needs to worry about. Those experts say the nation needs to also start preparing for a bioterrorist attack. The University of Minnesota’s Michael Osterholm is one of the leading experts on infectious disease and bioterrorism in the nation. He says it’s unlikely that a terrorist is equipped at this time to release a deadly disease like anthrax or small pox. But he says the events on Tuesday, September 11th have redefined terrorism in the United States. And he says the country is currently ill equipped to handle a biological outbreak.
“We’re a country right now, that if we have a slight increase of influenza cases in the wintertime we close down our hospitals because we have no excess capacity, we don’t have the health care workers or the beds. Now you tell me, given that backdrop, what it will mean when 250 or 300,000 or 400,000 people suddenly come down with smallpox or anthrax.”
Osterholm says if those biologic agents, or others like them are released in an American city, it could, over time, make thousands of people sick. And he says the highly contagious diseases would rapidly transfer from person to person, making it difficult for doctors and public health officials to contain the outbreak. On top of that, Osterholm says most such diseases wouldn’t show their symptoms for 3 or four days. He says that could stretch the state’s public health departments thin as they try to track down who’s infected and who’s not.
“We run much of public health in this country on what I would call the equivalent of running O’Hare air traffic control tower on tin cans and string. Yet that’s going to be the system that’s going to respond to bioterrorism.”
Osterholm and others are lobbying the federal government to allocate billions of dollars to improve the community response rates of public health and emergency personnel throughout the country. He also says the country needs to start stockpiling vaccines for smallpox and anthrax. Since the last human case of small pox was eradicated in 1979,
Osterholm says officials haven’t seen the need to continue vaccinating against the disease. Anthrax, on the other hand, has a vaccine but can also be treated with antibiotics if the disease is caught early enough.
The threat of a bioterrorist attack is not only worrying public health officials but also the emergency room doctors who will be treating infected patients. In addition to running the risk of contracting the same infections they’re treating, emergency room doctors say the threat of bioterrorism adds to an already busy schedule of treating cuts, gashes and gun shot wounds. Now physicians, like Pat Lilja who works at North Memorial Medical Center in the Twin Cities, say they have to watch out for rare illnesses as well; for instance, rare flu-like cases in the summer.
“You don’t know about it until people three or four or five days later suddenly start coming into hospitals sick. So you don’t have this big, all of a sudden, something’s going on. What you have to rely upon are your hospitals, primarily your emergency departments, to say we’ve seen twenty patients today all with this same problem and we usually see one a month.”
Lilja and other emergency room physicians’ say they’ve been conducting mock drills of biological and chemical disasters to prepare for any outbreaks. But he says the emergency plans at many hospitals are stuck on the dusty shelves of an administrator too worried about a declining budget rather than an event that they think could never occur. That worries Randall Larson, the director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security in Virginia. He says hospitals need to increase their security and monitoring methods to make sure they catch any outbreak that does occur.
“We mad e a decision in this country that we didn’t want the federal government or the state government running our hospitals. They’re private corporations. Thirty percent of them are in the red today. Fifty percent of our teaching hospitals are in the red. They don’t have time to do the exercises and the training they need to be prepared to respond to a biological or a chemical attack. They got to just keep the doors open and stay out of the red.”
Larsen and others say the new federal office of Homeland Security needs to make bioterrorism a priority in the coming years. He says the FBI, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and doctors need to coordinate their efforts to make sure they respond quickly to a biological or chemical outbreak. He says the responsiveness is just as critical for those who work in public health as the quickness expected from a police officer or a firefighter. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Scheck.