October 19, 2001

Reassurance: Vanderbilt prepares for all scenarios in bioterroism war

Featured Image

Vice Chancellor Dr. Harry R. Jacobson reassures the Vanderbilt community. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Reassurance: Vanderbilt prepares for all scenarios in bioterroism war

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist talks to the media after Monday’s roundtable discussion. (photo by Dana Johnson)

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist talks to the media after Monday’s roundtable discussion. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Since the morning of Sept. 11, America has changed profoundly. The country is now at war with a new type of enemy. The absolute safety and security we all felt are gone, replaced with the knowledge that terrorism can take many forms and may happen anywhere in our country.

Intelligence experts have long known about the potential for terrorists to use biologic agents to sicken and terrify a population. But until now, no one individual or group has been so effective in America.

Over the last two weeks VUMC faculty and staff have conducted meetings to assess the Medical Center’s readiness should a biologic or chemical terrorist attack occur in Nashville. As an addition to the Medical Center’s Mass Casualty Plan, which was designed to accommodate large numbers of trauma or chemical exposure victims, provisions have been added to address staff safety concerns and high patient volume a biologic event might generate.

“Vanderbilt has an important role to play in this community. Our job is to be ready for the health consequences of any terrorism but also to reassure this community that we can help protect them,“ said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist held a bioterrorism roundtable discussion this week at Tennessee Emergency Management Administration headquarters with many of the state’s top emergency management and healthcare professionals.

The roundtable, was held so physicians, hospital administrators, law enforcement and top government officials from across the state could gather and exchange information and ideas, and to gauge the state’s preparedness for a biologic attack. Colleen Conway-Welch, dean of the School of Nursing, and Dr. John A. Morris Jr., director of the Division of Trauma, represented VUMC at the meeting.

“This is a new type of war,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Frist at a press briefing this week following a bioterrorism roundtable discussion with the state’s top emergency management and health care professionals at Tennessee Emergency Management Administration headquarters.

“The type of war that we are seeing unfold right before our eyes is a different type of war, a war which will involve anthrax,” Frist said.

Physicians and other public health professionals are now being asked to battle an enemy too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Frist said improved coordination between federal agencies and the federal government, along with all state and local agencies, is needed in order to identify and treat outbreaks before they become symptomatic.

After the first case of anthrax in Florida was diagnosed, public health officials were quick to point out it that was unlikely the event was intentional. However, recent developments point to the inevitability of an ever-increasing number of cases of anthrax, resulting in the fear of not knowing what to expect.

Bioterrorists have several potential bacterial and viral agents at their disposal, but the news isn’t all bad. Health professionals and defense experts offer reassurances of the difficulties of turning bacteria and viruses into weapons.

“To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt our greatest fear is fear itself,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of Preventive Medicine and a nationally recognized infectious diseases expert. “Fear can paralyze us. It can give us insecurity about our capacities and ourselves. Fear can lead us down wrong directions. It can make us spend money, effort and resources on things that are not productive. We need to guard against that. We need to do the best to deal with calamity when it comes, but not let the prospect of calamity start the terror that the terrorists wish to incite.”

This week’s issue of the Reporter provides basic information from Medical Center faculty, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases handbook Medical Management of Biologic Casualties about the various possible biologic agents, their symptoms, treatment, and prevention techniques.