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For the week of May 1 - 7, 2002

  News

Idaho prepares itself against bioterrorism

Idaho Fire Chiefs Association addresses issue


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Idaho communities have improved their capability to react to a bioterrorist attack, but are not yet where they should be, several speakers told the Idaho Association of Fire Chiefs at their annual conference last week at Elkhorn.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, left, receives an honorary fire chiefís helmet Friday at the Idaho Fire Chiefs Association convention at the Sun Valley Elkhorn Resort. Ron Clark, Twin Falls fire chief and outgoing president of the association, presented the helmet, saying that Kempthorne had been "extremely helpful to the fire departments and fire chiefs of Idaho." Kempthorne accepted the helmet appreciatively, but added, "You know what this did to Mike Dukakis." Express photos by Willy Cook

Despite the annihilation of much of al-Qaidaís terrorist network since Sept. 11, serious threats remain, speakers pointed out during the conference April 24-27.

"The president believes there will still be a series of attacks that will hit America and Americans will still be murdered," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said, speaking of a recent meeting he had with President George Bush.

Deputy State Epidemiologist Leslie Tengelson said biological agents are one weapon of choice for any such attack. She said such weapons have been used since ancient times. In the Middle Ages, plague-infected bodies were catapulted inside town walls. During World War II, the Japanese army dropped plague-infected fleas over Manchuria.

Participants at the Idaho Fire Chiefs Convention at Elkhorn review new fire-fighting equipment on display. Express photos by Willy Cook

The United States destroyed its stockpiles of biological weapons in 1969, and signed an international treaty in 1972 not to develop any more. However, she said, Iraq appears to have produced some.

"A bioterrorist event could have catastrophic public health consequences," Tengelson said.

She said three types of delivery systems can be used with biological weaponsóby aerosol, resulting in inhalation; by contamination of food or water, and by topical contamination of skin.

Tengelson said two likely biological agents for weapons use are anthrax and smallpox. Anthrax spores, she said, are easy to produce from natural sources since the disease is fairly common among domestic animals. She said the only publicly disclosed storage locations for smallpox viruses are the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and with the Russian government in Moscow. However, she said, "itís pretty clear that when the Soviet Union collapsed, some of those vials walked off." She said Iraq, North Korea and Libya probably have smallpox stockpiles.

She said the last known natural case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977.

Smallpox, she said, is very contagious, and there is no known treatment. Many Americans were vaccinated against smallpox when they were children, but the vaccine is effective for only about 10 years. However, she said, another dose of vaccine would be effective if given within four days of exposure. She said 15 million such doses are stored at the CDC, and those doses could probably be diluted five times. She said a company in France also has announced that it has 85 million doses.

Tengelson said the inhaled variety of anthrax is the most dangerous, in fact 100 percent fatal if not treated. However, she said, it is not contagious.

Tengelson said there are now eight National Pharmaceutical Stockpiles around the United States where drugs for potential bioterrorism agents are stored, and development of four more such stockpiles is underway. However, she said Idaho has not yet developed a plan for distributing those drugs to communities in the event of an epidemic.

Tengelson said hospitals should be making plans for local distribution of the drugs. But a spokeswoman for St. Lukeís Wood River Medical Center said the hospital would depend on state authorities do that job.

Tengelson said Idaho just received about $8 million of federal money to improve its preparedness to respond to bioterrorism events and outbreaks of infectious disease.

In an interview, Jane Smith, bureau chief and state registrar for health policy and vital statistics, said the money will be used to upgrade surveillance and investigation capability, improve labs and provide better antibiotics and vaccine distribution.

"Itís a fantastic opportunity to get our public health infrastructure built up," Smith said.

Tengelson said the state has a centralized communications system for reporting suspicious disease outbreaks, and her office has the legal right to inspect the records of hospital patients, "but right now, we have some really wimpy laws on quarantine." She said Idaho Attorney General Al Lance is investigating possible legislation to allow authorities to require people infected with a deadly disease to remain isolated.

Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs, appointed by Kempthorne to head Idahoís Biosecurity Council, said there were 150 cases of suspicious white powder reported in Idaho last fall. He said that in each of those case, authorities responded, tested the powders and concluded there was no danger within one day.

"I would say that our system responded quite well," Riggs said. "We can respond if itís an isolated event. The problem would be if itís a massive event."

A case of widespread contamination, Riggs said, could produce panic among a public demanding immediate treatment.

"I really think we have the potential for a riot," he said.

That contention was supported by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who related the events that occurred after the first case of anthrax contamination was discovered in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., at the Senateís Hart Office Building. He said the line for testing for anthrax infection reached all the way around the large building where the testing was taking place, due to the fact that many neighborhood residents demanded to be tested.

"This was a relatively small, isolated event, yet there was a near panic in the greater environment on Capitol Hill," Craig said.

He said the Hart Office Building was evacuated and a cleanup cost $14 million.

"Fifty percent of the U.S. Senate had been shut down by the exposure," he said.

He said the attack demonstrated that there was no central communications system or evacuation plan for the Capitol.

 


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.