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Anthrax risk is seen as 'extraordinarily low'

Diseases and IllnessesU.S. Centers for Disease Control and PreventionDeath

Most Marylanders have little, if any, chance of being exposed to anthrax, state and private health officials said yesterday.

In a briefing for the House Environmental Matters Committee, Dr. Sue Bailey, a Persian Gulf war veteran and former assistant secretary of defense, said anthrax attacks in the United States during the past week "are so random that I think the risk is virtually zero."

Dr. Georges Benjamin, state health secretary, told the committee that growing public fears over the exposures are a more "significant public problem."

The two were among several witnesses outlining the state's readiness for potential bioterrorism attacks after the flurry of anthrax episodes in Florida, New York and Washington. In many ways, their testimony sought to calm fears by playing down the risk to individuals.

"The relative risk is extraordinarily low," said Benjamin. Last year, he added, the federal Centers for Disease Control investigated two suspected anthrax cases all year. This year there are four confirmed cases, while the center reports 20,000 cases of the flu and 27,000 heart attacks.

While anthrax is easy to produce -- "you could do it in a high school microbiology course," Benjamin said -- it is "incredibly complicated and expensive" to produce and deliver in quantities sufficient to kill or sicken large numbers of people, said Bailey, who works for a private health care consultant in Bethesda.

Committee Chairman John A. Hurson said he "didn't hear anything" during the briefing that indicated there was a need for new legislation, though he is concerned about "communications problems" among hospitals and public health officials.

"If you have five or six cases [of anthrax] in, say, a Cumberland hospital, how does that information get around quickly?" wondered Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The state has established a public health monitoring system that attempts to spot disease outbreaks in Maryland or elsewhere that could be related to biological agents. The same system monitors hospital bed status and distributes the information electronically to public health and medical officials throughout the state.

Maryland health and emergency officials are about to publish a plan, three years in the making, for handling mass casualties from a variety of attacks, including conventional explosives, chemicals, biological agents and radiological agents. That plan is expected to predict that attacks with explosives and chemicals are far more likely than those using biological or radiological agents.

The plan, according to James R. Stanton, the state emergency services official overseeing its development, will recommend upgrading communications systems among hospitals and emergency personnel. It will also urge hospitals to find ways to expand the number of patients they can handle in disasters.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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