Agencies attend bioterrorism class

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2003

A group of medical professionals, first responders and community health care officials got a taste in how to handle a potential bioterrorism attack if the need ever arose in our local area.

A bioterrorism seminar - called BT 101, Bioterrorism Awareness Training - was held Friday, August 1, at the Covington County Health Department with more than eight local agencies participating.

The seminar, which covered various possibilities of a bioterrorism attack, how to handle such an attack, and the dispersal of responders and information, provided the group with the foundation for developing a plan in the event of such an attack and the structure for how vital it is for all agencies to work together.

"This helps us see how the other agencies would be involved," said Terry Kyzar, environmental director of the Covington County Health Department. "It shows us how we can better coordinate efforts among all involved agencies - what our roles would be and how we might have to assume other roles in the event of an attack."

For Jennifer Warthen, assistant director of the Covington County Emergency Management Agency, the seminar provided a look at how the medical field will be working with EMA and other agencies during an attack.

"A class like this, it shows us what the medical workers will be doing, so we can incorporate them into the development of our plan," Warthen said. "We're already developing our plan, and this gives us another bit of information to use. It also lets us see what everybody's role should be and how those roles can overlap to be most effective. We already work so closely with fire, rescue and police - so it was good to see how closely we would be working with health officials, hospitals and other federal and state agencies."

Jeff Holland, police chief in River Falls, and a member of the Andalusia Fire Department said the class was very informative.

"These types of classes are a way to further all of our education, and a way to show how all of us need to work together in the event of a disaster or attack," Holland said. "No one agency will be able to handle a situation by itself, and knowing how the state and federal agencies will become involved is important."

The class, sponsored by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the South Central Center for Public Health Preparedness and UASOM Division of CME, is a statewide program to help educate officials all across Alabama in the event of a bioterrorism attack.

"If we didn't think Alabama wasn't a target, we wouldn't be conducting these classes," said Rachel Vasconez, program presenter.

Vasconez then asked the participants why Alabama was a target, and many couldn't think of any reasons, but others could.

Military installations in the state, nuclear power plants, water supplies, agriculture installations, medical research facilities - all are potential targets of bioterrorists, and Alabama has several of each.

A large portion of the class was spent on identifying potential bioterrorism agents, methods of delivery, and how to recognize and treat such an agent.

Some of the potential bioterrorist agents include smallpox, anthrax, pneumonic plague, ebola, salmonella and others.

What makes these agents so worrisome is the fact that all of them are naturally occurring within the environment, and the fact each can be cultured relatively easily and inexpensively by bioterrorists.

"We know they (terrorists) have the means to develop and deliver these agents, and the desire to carry out an attack," Vasconez said during her Power point presentation. "The impact of terrorism is it produces mass casualties, causes fear, panic and confusion, can overwhelm emergency response systems, disrupt routines and create a loss of faith in government and emergency response. Potential targets of terrorism include humans - both military and civilian, commercial animals, commercial plants, and environmental systems."

As for delivery of such agents, several methods were discussed, but aerosol delivery is considered the most likely and potentially harmful. (Out of concern for public perception, the Star-News will not publish details about delivery methods.)

During the seminar, discussion also involved if anyone had experience or remembered a time when bioterrorism was used in the past. The anthrax scare following the September 11 attacks was the most immediate in the attendees minds.

"A lot of the post-9/11 anthrax letters were hoaxes, but it is very important to respond to the hoaxes," Vasconez said. "It also creates a burden. If you don't respond, then there is always the chance that the next attack could be the real thing. It's kind of like "Chicken Little" and the sky is falling story. It's a burden because it ties up resources, causes panic, and is a motivator for other terrorists."

Proper education and the ability to identify potential bioterror attacks was another key point of the meeting.

Attendees were shown several pictures of anthrax, smallpox and plague victims; and were given the information on how vital it is to recognize such victims.

"Biological agents are very different from HAZMAT cases," Vasconez said. "With HAZMAT situations, you instantly know what you are up against and how to deal with the situation. Your first responders are going to be your law enforcement, fire departments, rescue officials. With a biological agent, you don't have that luxury. Your first responders will most likely be your hospital emergency room workers or doctors with patients coming in with symptoms related to an agent. Laboratories will play a vital role in dealing with biological agents, and it's important to know how each agency overlaps and needs to work together."

The need for local and state divisions of the Homeland Advisory System which is an indicator of the national threat level, was discussed.

"One of the things that makes the advisory level so hard to understand is that it's not area specific," Vasconez said. "Yes, there may be a heightened level in New York, Washington or Los Angeles - but that doesn't mean the same threat exists in Andalusia. The need to work with local, state and national agencies to develop a localized advisory level is important, and that's another place all the agencies and media can work together."