Hospital prepares for bioterrorism

The GW Hospital is the only hospital in the D.C. area fully equipped to respond to a biological terrorist attack, with expert doctors, stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics and a decontamination facility.

The decontamination facility involves bringing victims through an external shower area and then into the emergency room, said Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at GW. It is most effective in immediately reducing affects of chemical agents, but also contains drugs to treat biological threats, such as Anthrax and smallpox, as soon as they spread, he said.

“The University Hospital pioneered the decontamination unit,” hospital spokeswoman Barbara Porter said. The facility was the first in D.C., she said.

The University decontamination facility was featured in a Sept. 30 broadcast of “60 Minutes.” The show also spoke with GW bio-hazard expert Dr. Craig D’Atley.

“We feel that we are as well prepared as a hospital is likely to be for these types of situations,” said D’Atley, in an interview with Mike Wallace.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a growing concern that terrorists will orchestrate biological attacks.

“They turned our technology against us, and there is still vulnerability – they can get into other infrastructures besides aviation,” Harrald said.

Although an attack is by no means certain, both federal and local authorities are bracing for bioterrorism.

“Local authorities know how to respond in the event of an attack,” Harrald said. “They know how to get people through the decontamination facility.”

GW officials are also helping to coordinate plans on a national level.

“GW experts are working with the Department of Defense and CDC to plan a response and recognize the physical and resource limitations,” Harrald said.

He cited capacity of hospital facilities and the amount of vaccines available as limitations.

Keith Holtermann, chief of Research and Health Policy, said the facility will lessen the effects of an attack, but it will not shield everyone.

“The facility is best equipped to cope with chemical attacks, such as the Tokyo subway attacks in 1995,” Holtermann said. “Biological agents such as small pox and Anthrax are very different.”

Holtermann said smallpox and Anthrax incubate in the body for several days before symptoms arise. It can spread without being detected or realized by those infected.

“It is a slow-motion kind of event, and the problem lies in the distribution method of the agent,” Holtermann said.

GW expert in emergency medicine Anthony Macintyre said the main difficulty lies in detecting the attack in the first place.

The nature of the agent means that Anthrax or smallpox could be in the population for several days before it is found.

Other problems are the distribution of vaccines and their effectiveness.

“The federal government has stockpiles of vaccines, but there are many logistical issues in the distribution,” Macintyre said.

“With smallpox, once you have contracted the disease, vaccines cannot fight it,” crisis expert Jack Harrald said. “There is no guarantee.”

The hospital is instituting procedures to cope with a potential biological attack on the area.

“They have set procedures and drills; they have walked through their system, and it is run by people who really know what they’re doing,” Harrald said.

The hospital is confident that they have effective facilities to deal with a crisis such as a biological strike.

“Hospitals throughout D.C. have plans in place to deal with disaster, whether manmade or natural. The hospital has vaccines and antibiotics in place,” the hospital’s director of Marketing, Lisa Saisselin, said in a written statement.

Saisselin outlined GW’s plan in the event of a biological attack.

The plan includes cooperation with local area hospitals and federal authorities, as well as drills and training for hospital employees involving the nature of these biological agents.

“The GW Hospital has received almost no inquiries from the public about how to obtain vaccines,” Saisselin wrote. “I would expect that individuals have been contacting their primary care physicians with such requests.”

While the hospital and other facilities are readying for possible bioterrorism, doctors said nothing can be assured.

“The bottom line is we are better prepared to respond to something like this than five years ago, but we are certainly not completely prepared,” Macintyre said.

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