Texas Department of Health maintaining system readiness for any bioterrorist act

Chemicals or microorganisms turned into weapons at the hands of terrorists is a picture many people have not had or did not want to imagine until recently. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, this scenario has many people asking: “Who or what is going to protect me and my family?”
State Epidemiologist Dennis Perroffa at the Texas
Department of Health (TDH) says many answers lie in a strong and flexible public health system at local, state and national levels.

“Knowing about and responding to a virus or a bacterial agent that is affecting people is the nature of public health,” Perrotta said. “Whether the infection is naturally occurring or the result of a terrorist act, TDH and other public health agencies are trained to react quickly. That’s what public health professionals do every day.”

The key is rapid detection of unusual occurrences, he said.

“The sooner we identify any disease outbreak, the quicker we can bring together local, state and federal resources and the more lives we will save. We stay in touch with doctors and other health care providers, monitoring their reports and investigating unusual occurrences,” Perrotta said. “We make sure that prevention and control measures are in place.”

Teams at TDH have been working on bioterrorism response for several years, according to Perrotta. “We coordinate with federal agencies and help develop response plans with local communities across the state. Preparedness and coordination are crucial.”

Perrotta draws a distinction between chemical and biological attacks.

“Chemical attacks cause injuries almost immediately and will elicit an immediate emergency response,” he said. “But bioterrorism is more complex because it can be done without much, if any, notice. The first clues to a biological agent release may be sick people who seek medical care days or weeks later, perhaps in different cities.

“In response to bioterrorism, as with any other epidemic, public health plays a critical role,” he added.

After the events of Sept. 11, TDH issued an alert to doctors, hospitals and other health care professionals around the state, reminding them to be especially watchful for suspicious symptoms and infections and to immediately report these to the local or state health department, 24 hours a day.
Following are some frequently asked questions that

TDH has received recently and the answers about bioterronsm:

What is bioterrorism?

Bioterrorism is the dispensing of disease microbes by individuals, groups or governments for the express purpose of causing harm for ideological, political or financial gain.

What are the chances that a bioterrorist attack will occur in my hometown?

No one really knows the chances, so it is important for cities, counties and the state to have plans in place to respond quickly. There is no need for panic, but it is wise to be prepared.

How many bacteria and chemicals agents must I worry about?

Among the myriad chemicals and microbes from which to choose, only a few dozen agents are likely candidates. Fortunately, spreading them to cause maximum exposure and injury or illness is not a simple task.

What about smallpox? Is there a vaccine I can get for me and my family?

Smallpox vaccinations were discontinued in the 1980s after the disease was eradicated, and no vaccine is currently available to the public. Some vaccine is kept by the federal government to be sent to affected areas if an outbreak occurs.
What can I do to protect myself from anthrax?
No anthrax vaccine is available for the general public. Anthrax is not contagious and can be treated with antibiotics. As soon as an anthrax outbreak is detected, these antibiotics can be distributed to those exposed in time to prevent disease.

There are many types of gas masks, but no one type protects against all chemicals and microbes. Because a chemical or biological attack will almost certainly be a surprise, a gas mask would need to be worn 24 hours a day to be an effective protection. Gas masks themselves also present some risks when used, especially to people with certain pulmonary problems.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?

Be alert to your own health and that of your family just as you normally are. You know better than anyone what health problems are unusual for you and your family. Report any unusual symptoms or illnesses immediately to your health care provider. If you know of a number of people who have unusual symptoms or illnesses, you may report these to your local health department.