Doctor says Northwest Medical is prepared for possible emergencies involving biological terrorism
The Derrick, 10/10/01, By MICHELLE SOTTIAUX

A special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted.

THE PHYSICIAN SAYS NORTHWEST HAS AN EMERGENCY PLAN IN PLACE AND OFFICIALS REGULARLY TAKE PART IN DRILLS.

The terrorist attacks nearly one month ago and threats of retaliation for America's assaults on Afghanistan this week have made many area residents wonder about their safety. One of the main concerns for some is biological terrorism. People fear terrorists could release bacteria or other agents into the air, infecting many people.

Federal officials recently announced a plan to combat biological terrorism. It relies on the placement of eight sites around the country. They would be filled with 50 tons of medical supplies, vaccines, antibiotics, ventilators and gas masks that can be rushed anywhere in the U.S. 

Thousands of trained medical professionals are also on alert, ready to dash anywhere in the country and provide assistance.

However, with only a few locations, these "push packages" may not arrive for hours or possibly even days, and local hospitals need to know what to do in the meantime. 

IS U.S. PREPARED? 

"We're as prepared as anybody and probably more prepared than most," said Dr. Rade Vukmir, Northwest Medical Center's physician director of emergency services. The hospital has an emergency mechanism that is and has been in place, Vukmir said. This mechanism is a fairly elaborate system that coordinates the efforts of the 911 system and local fire and police stations with the hospital. 

Staff and administration at the hospital take part in regular emergency drills so they can better deal with possible emergencies. They participated in a bioterrorism drill just six months ago, and Vukmir said the system did quite well. 

There are three main types of biological warfare: poisonous gas such as sarin or mustard gas, bacteria such as anthrax, and viruses such as small pox. 

Vukmir is confident the hospital will be able to deal with most biological or chemical threats. Doctors have made sure they have an adequate level of antibiotics to deal with a possible bacterial outbreak. Vukmir is also confident the hospital will be able to handle the possible release of gas-inhalant agents. 

Viral attacks pose the greatest threat because of the lack of immunizations necessary for their treatment, Vukmir said. There are about 10 million doses of small pox vaccine available in the country, and the federal government possesses all of them, he said. 

However, a virus like small pox would be difficult for terrorists to get their hands on as the disease was eradicated in 1980. Also, because it is so contagious, the release of a virus like small pox could have serious implications for the terrorist cell and its home country. These factors make a viral attack very unappealing to many terrorist groups. 

Vukmir said that being in a rural region could be beneficial if a virus was released. Because viral diseases pass from personal contact, people are better off in Venango County than in a large metropolitan area where there is more opportunity for transmission. 

Another problem posed by biological and chemical terrorism is the difficulty involved in diagnosing things such as anthrax and small pox. Northwest Medical is trying to alleviate that problem by teaching staff to recognize the symptoms of these conditions and reminding them of warning signs of a possible biological attack. 

The hospital hosts sessions for its staff and other emergency medical workers, "so everyone is on the same page," Vukmir said. 

SHOULD WE WORRY? 

Most local officials agree that while there may be a real threat of some type of unconventional war activity, this area will probably not be one of the main targets. The biggest danger, locally, is fear and anxiety about the future and possible attacks, Vukmir said. People need to discuss their feelings with counselors, clergy, friends and families so they do not become overwhelmed. It is also important to make periodic checks on friends and neighbors to make sure they are OK, Vukmir added. 

Venango County Emergency Management Director Dick Graff said bioterrorism is something "that we should have been worrying about all along." He said bioterrorism and other chemical threats have always been a topic of discussion at emergency management meetings. It was the events that occurred Sept. 11 that made many people acutely aware of the danger, he said. 

WHAT CAN WE DO TO BE PREPARED? 

"Sometimes it takes a disaster like this to make people aware," Nancy Witherup, director of disaster services at the Allegheny Region Chapter of the American Red Cross, said. She said the most important thing local residents can do is try and be prepared and remain calm. The Red Cross recommends that people compile a basic disaster kit and have discussions with their families about what they would do if a disaster were to strike.

Vukmir said the purchase of gas masks and stockpiling of antibiotics are not necessary. Gas masks only filter out some threats and leave wearers vulnerable to others. They are also only effective if worn when the gas hits and it is often very difficult to distinguish when that time has come. 

Only some antibiotics are known to kill bacteria such as anthrax and the plague, and there is no proof that taking the drugs as a precaution will do anything to protect people against the bacteria, Vukmir said. 

"People need to remain alert," Graff said. If something were to happen, it is important that people know where to look for information and that they know how to alert the proper authorities, Graff added. In the event of a disaster, instructions for area residents will be printed in newspapers and broadcast on radio and television advertisements, he said. 

Vukmir recommends that people keep up a healthy diet and drink lots of water so they are not as susceptible to bacteria or viruses. He also urges people to be cautious, but to remain calm. 
"We are prepared," Vukmir said.