Feb. 10, 1999 With weapons of biological and chemical terrorism in the headlines and firmly on the nation's public agenda, political leaders, physicians, research scientists, as well as law enforcement and intelligence experts will meet Feb. 16 and 17 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott to talk about what to do should bioterrorists launch an assault on civilians in the United States.
Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala will give the keynote address.
"This is a timely and urgent agenda," says D.A. Henderson, M.D., the person credited with leading the World Health Organization's successful fight to eradicate smallpox from the world, and director of the new Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. Henderson has led the call for public and professional awareness of bioterrorism as a serious threat to the civilian population. "Until recently, I had doubts about publicizing the subject because of concern that it might entice someone to try spreading anthrax or some other biological weapon. However, events of the past two years have made it clear that likely perpetrators already envisage every possible scenario. And recent events in Iraq, Japan and Russia cast an ominous shadow."
The United States, like other nations, is ill prepared to cope with a bioterrorist attack, most experts agree. In fact, it could take days to weeks (depending on the microbe) before physicians or public health officials even realized an attack had been made. The first sign of attack is likely to be people sick or dying in emergency rooms or clinics. Further, some of the most serious biological weapons, such as smallpox, have the capacity to initiate a spreading epidemic of contagious disease that may be difficult to contain.
Henderson says the point of the symposium is not to look for quick fixes, but to marshal the expertise of public health professionals, government officials, intelligence specialists and others in the development of practical, long-term and short-term anti-terrorist strategies and measures. For example, public and private partnerships may be needed to make and stockpile protective vaccines or curative drugs, which are either non-existent or in dangerously short supply. Accordingly, a model of "first response" to a terrorist incident involving a biological agent must focus on primary care doctors, emergency room physicians and nurses, infectious disease specialists, infection control professionals, hospital epidemiologists, health officers, and laboratory directors and staff, among others.
Hopkins' new Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies (CCBS), established last year, intends to play a key role in developing national and international policies for dealing with the threat of biological weapons, according to Tara O'Toole, M.D., CCBS senior fellow and former assistant secretary of energy. "The Center's focus will be on those biological weapons that pose the greatest threat to civilian populations, including anthrax, smallpox, plague and viral hemorrhagic fevers, diseases that could cause unthinkable numbers of casualties," she says.
Highlights of the symposium will include in-depth examinations by leading experts of the following questions: Are current concerns about bioterrorism real and not inflammatory? Why must medicine and public health communities address the issue of bioterrorism? Which biological threats warrant the most concern? What is the possible aftermath of an act of biological terrorism? What issues regarding vaccines and pharmaceuticals must be addressed? What are the possible scenarios involving the use of anthrax and smallpox in civilian populations?
The symposium is sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Society for Microbiology, and 12 other professional organizations. REPORTERS' NOTE:
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