Alabama Ill-Prepared to Handle Chemical,Biological Attack; Individuals At Risk

Dr. John Moorhouse of Baptist Hospital puts it bluntly.  Alabama isn't ready if terrorist attack with biological or chemical weapons.

"I think if there was something that happened today we would be ill prepared for any kind of major catastrophe involving multiple victims," he said.Experts in terrorism told Alabama officials similar news three years ago.  It isn't a matter of if, but rather, when terrorists will unleash a chemical or biological attack in the United States.

Tuesday, emergency planners held a quickly called meeting at Baptist Hospital to consider that possibility. Doctors and nurses from Baptist and Maxwell Air Force Base met with police, fire and emergency managers. Each group has its own emergency plan, so today's discussion was on how to coordante all of those plans in the event of an attack.

The plain-spoken truth that came from the meeting is that there just isn't much individuals can do to protect ourselves in the event of an anthrax or smallpox or chemical attack. So, doctors and emergency managers want us to take the next best step; be prepared to help them manage an epidemic if it comes.

Experts have looked at these types of scenarios for years. A terrorist spreads the deadly anthrax bug in a crowded closed space like a bus station or shopping mall. Alabama's Counterterrorism Force director Dr. Neil Sass says the sheer numbers involved is what causes a problem.

"Numbers where a lot of people would get ill, it would completely tie up the ability of the medical response to respond."

You might ask how the government would notify you of an attack. The truth is, officials won't know unless terrorists take credit, which is unlikely. So then, they say, the public must become the early warning system.  Sass has some simple advice, "If they see something or feel something, go to a physician or a county health department so we will be advised if something's going on."

Dr. Sass says early detection is the only way to save lives. The nation doesn't have enough resources to handle a widespread infection, but it can concentrate drugs and equipment on one spot quickly to keep the epidemic one place.

For their part, doctors are learning to recognize diseases they don't usually see like anthrax and small pox, and teams like this are tearing apart their individual disaster plans and deciding who will take overall command.

Dr. Moorhouse says that's the biggest sticking point in the current scheme of things.  "There is some coordination but it's not at the level we need to be and I think after the September 11th disaster we really need to get on the ball about this," he said.

Both Dr. Sass and Moorhouse say Alabama is in much better shape when it comes to chemical attack. That's because we have some experience in handling toxic substances and nerve gasses at the anniston army depot.

Both men say while the government figures out how to handle a biological or terrorist attack, the public must be part of the lookout system.