WASHINGTON – Baltimore City health officials expects to have an online bioterrorism surveillance plan in place by Monday, a system that they said will put them among the leaders nationally in bioterror defense.
Baltimore’s “online, right now, real-time monitoring” system is the best way to detect a bioterrorist attack, said Bruce Clements, associate director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infection at St. Louis University.
Clements said communities can best respond to biological attacks by operating surveillance systems to keep tabs on suspicious medical trends that may be an infectious disease breakout. Baltimore’s system should allow health officials to report information almost on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The city already has a computer surveillance system that records patient information from ambulances, said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson. Information is compiled every 24 hours from an average of 300 ambulance calls, and analyzed for large occurrences of respiratory or gastrointestinal problems, the most likely symptoms caused by biological attack.
The same system records information from some hospital emergency rooms. Beilenson said the system should be in place in every Baltimore emergency room this week.
Detection is key in the fight against biological attacks, experts say. The colorless, odorless agents that would likely be used as biological weapons could be dispersed in the air, but would not be recognized immediately. Only after an incubation period of a few days when flu-like symptoms would start to appear, would the deadly agents begin to reveal themselves.
If the attack was detected in that incubation period, the biological agents could be treated with commonly prescribed antibiotics. Beilenson said the city has some of these antibiotics stockpiled.
Beilenson said the city is also considering a plan to keep track of sales of over-the-counter anti-flu and anti-diarrhea drugs at pharmacies and other stores where non-prescription drugs are sold. Johns Hopkins University is testing a pilot program of that plan at selected locations, he said.
Baltimore is prepared because it has to be, Beilenson said. He said it is more likely that a terrorist attack would occur in an urban area because of population. If a terrorist attack occurred in Baltimore, more people could be affected than would be in a rural community.
“The key is good surveillance,” said Beilenson. “The key is accurately and timely intelligence. It has to be daily, not weekly.”