Hospital Responds to Fears of Anthrax and Bioterrorism

For a long time, the United States has been protected against many infectious diseases. Vaccinations, improved sanitation and scientific innovation have prevented most citizens of the United States from losing sleep over scary germs. The last case of anthrax in the United States occurred 25 years ago.

Cows, sheep, pigs and other domestic animals are vaccinated against the deadly bacteria, and Americans generally live their lives without fear of airborne spores destroying their lungs and bodies.

But that was before Sept. 11, before many stores experienced a run on gas masks and before cases of anthrax broke out in Florida and New York. Now Americans are afraid.

The University Hospital division of infectious diseases receives five to 10 calls daily with inquiries about a vaccination against anthrax or the antibiotic that treats the disease. The Redwood Clinic, an international travels clinic located in the Redwood Community Center, reported that three or four people called requesting an anthrax vaccine, according to Hospital spokesman Jason Burgess.

Although doctors in the area doubt that such a problem would come to Salt Lake City, they do acknowledge the possibility it could happen here.

“To say that there is no potential for it would be pretty naive,” said Neil Kochenour, hospital medical director. “I don’t think there’s an overwhelming danger for it either.”

The anthrax outbreak has also made hospitals in the area think twice about their security.

“Since the anthrax outbreak, we’ve been taking a lot more serious look at it,” said Robert Davis, director of safety, security and emergency management at Primary Children’s Medical Center.

Although Davis could not talk about any specific security measures, he said Primary Children?s was “taking some fairly significant measures.?

Primary Children?s is training the staff to look for certain characteristics in letters and packages and re-evaluating who has access to the medical center.

In order to ensure that the most efficient care is given if there is an outbreak, staff members are receiving further training to watch for certain symptoms in their patients.

“Surveillance is a big deal with bioterrorism,” Davis said. ?Hospitals and clinics are on the alert for people who will come in with similar problems.”

Anthrax can be treated using antibiotics, but early detection is necessary.

“If an event does happen, we want to be able to respond quickly,” Davis said.

Anthrax is the infection caused by bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. It develops in soil around rotting animal carcasses, which is why domestic animals in the United States are vaccinated against it. The bacteria produces airborne spores that can cause pneumonia when inhaled in the lungs. Eighty percent of people exposed to the bacteria this way die from it.

“It’s a good biological agent to use if you want to get rid of somebody,” said Harry Rosado, assistant professor at the School of Medicine, explaining why anthrax would be the germ of choice for potential bioterrorists. “If you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get.”

Anthrax can also be spread through the skin. This cutaneous anthrax is not as serious as the inhaled version, and the mortality rate is only 20 percent for those who are infected through the skin.

Vaccination can prevent an anthrax infection, but it is only available to the military and researchers who work with the bacteria in their studies. Those who have called requesting the vaccine have been refused because there are not enough vaccinations, said Rosado, who also works in the infectious disease division of the hospital.

“There isn’t a good reason at this moment to release the vaccine,” he said. “There just isn’t enough for everybody.”

After all of the preparation and changes, some of which started before the attacks of Sept. 11, Davis is confident Primary Children?s is ready.

“We’re prepared because we’ve looked at the issues, studied them out and worked with federal agencies,” he said. “We’re very aware of the potential problems, and we’re planning for them and trying to deter them.”

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