Northwest NEWS

October 29, 2001


Bioterrorism preparedness

by Dr. M. Ward Hinds
   As a medical epidemiologist and as a public health officer, I am trained to make decisions based on evidence. I can assure residents that there is no evidence to date of any exposure to anthrax here or anywhere else west of the Mississippi River. All the same, the response would be rapid if we knew a true bioterrorist event did occur in our county.
   On confirmation of anthrax, an alert to the State Department of Health would trigger a shipment of epidemic investigators, antibiotics and other supplies to arrive here within 12 hours from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
   The fact is that fear is currently a far greater threat to a community's stability than actual risk of serious infection with anthrax. Destabilizing our nation is precisely the objective of terrorism. We can combat the terror tactic by paying attention to the facts, not to speculation or attention-grabbing sound bites and headlines.
   Low risk: The risk of anthrax infection from contact with packages or mail is extremely low, as shown by the very small number of actual infections that have occurred in eastern cities. Not only is the risk low, but skin infection is the most likely and least serious form and it is easily treatable with antibiotics. Among the multitude of packages and letters containing powders, only a few have contained anthrax spores. In even fewer cases have the anthrax spores been processed in a way that inhalation and lung infection have occurred.
   Limited supply: Investigation is revealing that the bioterrorists behind these targeted mailings have a very limited supply of anthrax spores. Anthrax has not been detected in mail to the homes of private citizens. People are not being targeted in their homes and should not be concerned.
   Sufficient meds. Don't buy or falsely request or hoard antibiotics out of fear of anthrax. Local supplies are sufficient to treat anyone with actual infection. If a large number of exposures actually occurred, thousands of doses of antibiotics are available from the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile for preventive treatment.
   No need to vaccinate. The risk is far too low to justify mass vaccinations of the general public at this time.
   Snohomish Health District is working closely with law enforcement, fire district and emergency management officials throughout the county to handle the surge of calls about possible anthrax exposures. Likewise, the medical community is vigilant, informed and responsive. The Health District ensures that hospitals and medical care providers in our county receive up-to-date protocols for screening, diagnosis and treatment of anthrax, by mail, fax and posting on our Web site at
   Dr. Hinds is a health officer with the Snohomish Health District.