Threat of bioterror ‘is real’

Herald staff and news services

WASHINGTON — The nation’s health secretary insisted to senators Wednesday that federal doctors are ready to combat a bioterrorist attack, even as he urged Americans to be on the lookout for mysterious symptoms and see a physician promptly if they have any.

"Be very vigilant about your activities and anything suspicious," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said. "Anything mysterious dealing with your body, get to a doctor … and ask if the doctor knows anything about bioterrorism."

Worried senators asked Congress to allocate $1.4 billion to improve the nation’s health system against bioterrorism — a sixfold increase.

"The threat is real. The overall probability is low … yet it’s increasing," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who introduced the spending bill along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

A surgeon, Frist warned that many of his fellow doctors wouldn’t recognize symptoms of anthrax or other bioterror agents in time to save sufferers or, for contagious diseases like smallpox, contain an outbreak. Thus, most of the money would be used to improve city, county and state preparedness.

Thompson acknowledged there are gaps, saying he has asked the Bush administration for $800 million, most to be sent to local and state public health systems.

Not only do front-line doctors and nurses need training, but regional health departments should be linked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early-warning computer system, which flags unusual clusters of illnesses around the country, he said. Thompson also wants at least one CDC-trained outbreak specialist stationed in every state; currently, 13 states lack them.

Despite those gaps, "people should not be scared into believing they need to buy gas masks. And people should not be frightened into hoarding medicine and food," Thompson emphasized.

On Sept. 11, the day of the recent U.S. terrorists attacks, physicians throughout Snohomish County were faxed information on bioterrorism agents and symptoms to look for as a precaution, said Dr. Tony Roon, president of the Snohomish County Medical Association, who oversees emergency planning at Providence Everett Medical Center.

Concern of bioterrorism issues isn’t new, but part of regular disaster planning, he said.

Health care workers from Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and Island counties regularly meet "so we can mount a coordinated effort in any disaster," Roon said.

But the recent attacks underscored the importance of disaster preparations.

"Our plan is not to rely on preparations we’ve made before, but work with Harborview Medical Center (in Seattle) and other hospitals in this area to repeat some of our educational processes and make sure that when our disaster planning occurs, it includes bioterrorism issues," Roon added.

Meanwhile, health secretary Thompson said 400 tons of medical supplies, including vaccines and antibiotics, are stockpiled at eight secret sites around the country and can be shipped within 12 hours anywhere they are needed, and that he hopes to purchase 100 more tons.

He outlined additional steps federal health agencies are taking:

  • Production of anthrax vaccine for the military, stalled because manufacturer Bioport Inc. has failed to meet Food and Drug Administration safety requirements, could resume within six weeks. Civilians do not need anthrax vaccination unless an attack were to occur, and none is available for them, Thompson said.

  • Some 15.4 million doses of smallpox vaccine are stockpiled, and 40 million more on order will arrive by late next year instead of in 2005.

  • Dr. D.A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins University, renowned for his role in wiping out smallpox in 1977, will head a new commission advising the government’s bioterrorism preparedness.

  • HHS will hold an annual training conference to teach local emergency workers how to identify and treat biowarfare agents.

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