State faces bioterrorism questions

Worried Alaskans calling in to get advice on potential for attacks

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001


The state Department of Health and Social Services issued the recommendations today after fielding numerous calls from fearful Alaskans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Antibiotics are used to treat effects of some chemical agents and three of five illnesses associated with germ warfare. However, Alaskans who stockpile the drug could drain local supplies and endanger people dependent on antibiotics to fight infections, said Dr. Beth Funk, state medical epidemiologist.

"We have people who are ill right now who need those antibiotics to return to health or save their lives," said Funk, who also noted it's dangerous to amass the drug in households where it could be misused.

In the event of a biological or chemical attack, the state would tap stockpiles of antibiotics kept by the federal government if there were a shortage in Alaska, she said.

Antibiotics are used to treat anthrax, bubonic plague and tularemia - three bacterial infections associated with germ warfare, Funk said. The drug is not effective against two other potential threats: smallpox and botulism.

The state has fielded many calls from people especially concerned about smallpox and anthrax, said Funk, noting Alaskans want to know if they should get vaccines. The answer is "no" because the vaccines are not available.

The United States stopped producing the smallpox vaccine for the general public when the virus was eradicated in 1983. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has some smallpox vaccine in reserve for emergencies and to inoculate scientists who work with similar viruses in laboratories.

In the event of a smallpox outbreak, the strategy would be to use the vaccine in reserve to inoculate only Alaskans exposed to the virus, which is airborne and contracted by inhaling it, she said. Although there is no treatment for a full-blown case, the vaccine is effective in preventing the disease from taking hold in people who come in contact with it, Funk said.

Although some people alive today were vaccinated as children, she said the smallpox inoculation is considered effective for only 15 years.

Anthrax vaccines also are not available to the general public, said Funk, adding that the vaccine is given only to the military.

Antibiotics are used to treat anthrax, which is not contagious but can be contracted by breathing airborne spores or by eating contaminated meat. However, the drug is effective only if the disease is diagnosed early and treated immediately, she said.

The state also advised against buying gas masks, saying such a device would offer too little too late in a surprise chemical attack.

The state is telling people it is preparing for a worst-case scenario. The state Emergency Coordination Center opened Oct. 1 and is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The state also is developing tests to quickly diagnose biological threats in patients, and is teaching public health workers to detect illnesses such as anthrax, said Karen Pearson, state public health director. However, the state is not fully prepared, she said.

"We've been working; we're aware. But we have a lot more to do," Pearson said. "We're not there yet."

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