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Pitt hosts national bioterror gathering

Public health's role in defense is the focus

Monday, September 09, 2002

By Karen Kane, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The first line of defense in a bioterrorist attack could be the pharmacy clerk who spots a sudden surge in sales of over-the-counter medications for influenza when it's not flu season. Or it could be the clinician at the local lab who notices a rash of blood specimens with high white cell counts.

When it comes to bioterrorism, the usual first responders to disasters -- firefighters and police officers -- might not be first anymore.

"Police and firemen won't be putting up the yellow tape" because there'll be no single crime scene, said Norman Smith, lead counterterrorism planner for Pennsylvania.

The role of public health in bioterror preparedness is the theme of a three-day national conference being hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in Oakland.

Bioterrorism has deep roots, said Sam Watson, co-founder of Pitt's and Carnegie Mellon University's BioMedical Security Institute and special assistant on biodefense programs to Pitt's senior vice chancellor for health sciences. It was bioterrorism when medieval attackers tossed animal carcasses over castle walls in the hopes of spreading disease to their enemies.

Bioterrorism is a subject du jour because of the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax scare that began a few weeks later when the first victim died. The first event didn't use biological agents and the second may not have been a terrorist attack, but combined, Watson said, they moved bioterrorism to front-and-center in discussions of disaster preparedness.

The local health department has been and will be a cradle for public health, Watson said, but it won't be able to sound the alert of a bioterrorist attack until the attack is recognized, he said.

That's where the new system relies on the vigilance of everyday people to notice abnormalities in school and work attendance, in death rates among particularly susceptible old and young segments of the population and in medical diagnoses and treatment regimens, he said.

Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Health Helen Burns said the state received $37 million in the wake of Sept. 11 to plan and implement a program for bioterrorism defense. "It's about a good relationship with all kinds of people from intelligence agencies to veterinarians to doctors," she said.

Ross Brechner, Maryland state epidemiologist and bioterrorism program director, warned that the business cards need to be exchanged and the interagency relationships strengthened before disaster occurs.

Some 120 educators, primarily from graduate schools of public health across the country, are attending the Association of Schools of Public Health conference that began yesterday and will end tomorrow. The purpose is to help public health faculty incorporate the principles of bioterror prevention and response into their curriculum.

Karen Kane can be reached at kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.

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