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Seminar on Bio-Terrorism

On May 15, 2003 the New York Independent Women's Alliance (NYIWA) held a seminar titled "Bioterrorism: Actual Risks & Methods of Preparedness - Research to Vaccination" at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City. The seminar was also sponsored by the Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA), the New York City Office of Emergency Management, and the New York chapter of the Ukrainian Engineers' Society of America.

The evening began with welcoming remarks from Chrysanna Woroch of the New York Independent Women's Alliance. She then proceeded to introduce the evening's speakers which included Michael Berkowitz, Kimberly Kohlhausen, Cathey Falvo, MD, and Robert Rothberg, MD.

bio-terrorism seminar
Attendees at the Ukrainian Institute

The first speaker was Deputy Chairman Michael Berkowitz of the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), The OEM was established on 1996 to ensure interagency coordination before, during and after disasters or emergencies such as the September 11th tragedies.

Mr. Berkowitz reviewed various aspects of New York City's preparedness to both biological and natural disasters and emergencies. He discussed the emergency medical assistance plans which were put in place prior to the September 11th tragedies and how these plans were actually used during the days following the attacks.

He also extend the discussion beyond the area of biological and medical emergencies to touch on natural emergencies such as hurricanes. Though a series of computer projected images, Mr. Berkowitz discussed how various low lying areas of New York City are vulnerable to the "storm surge" from a hurricane.

A "storm surge" refers to the "dome" of ocean water propelled by the winds and low barometric pressure of a hurricane. Storm surge from hurricanes have been known to destroy large buildings and communities close to the coastline.

Large areas of southern Queens, southern Brooklyn, the lower east and west sides of Manhattan, and the perimeter of Staten Island could all suffer damage from a hurricane's storm surge. In addition, storm surge from a strong hurricane would not be limited to waterfront properties and could conceivably push miles inland in some areas. New York City's unique geography, located at a "bend" in the coastline between New Jersey and Long Island, makes it especially vulnerable.

Mr. Berkowitz concluded by discussing some of the personal measures citizens should arrange in order to be prepared for an emergency. Additional details are listed at the OEM's web site at : http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/oem/home.html

The next speaker was Kimberly Kolhausen who is an independent ethics consultant and professor of humanities at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, New York.

Ms. Kohlhausen presented a fictionalized scenario simulating a covert smallpox attack on the United States. The scenario, titled "Dark Winter", was the first such exercise of its kind and was prepared by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in May of 2002. It was constructed to examine the challenges senior level policy makers would face if confronted with a bio-terrorist attack initiating outbreaks of a highly contagious disease.

bio-terrorism seminar
Ms. Kimberly Kohlhausen speaking about "Dark Winter" which is a fictionalize scenario simulating a biological attack on the United States of America

The goals and objectives of this scenario where to 1) confront senior leaders with the complex challenges of a biological attacks on the United States, 2) to examine state and federal reaction to a crisis that is simultaneously local and national in scope, to evaluate options for containing the spread of a lethal contagious disease, 3) address information management needs and the role of the media, and 4) to handle the ethical, political, cultural, operational, and legal challenges.

The scenario begins with some two dozen patients reporting to hospitals with an illness which is quickly confirmed as smallpox. Immediately issues regarding containment and vaccination surface. Also, the country must determine if it is at war.

Within a week the original two dozen cases have multiplied into 2,000 cases in 15 states. Public fear grows, sporadic violence begins to occur, travel restrictions are instituted and economic disruption begins to occur. The participants realize that the current vaccine reserves cannot contain the epidemic.

Within two weeks of the original outbreak, the epidemic explodes. 14,000 cases in 25 states are reported to the Center for Disease Control and thousands are dead. The U.S. medical system becomes completely overwhelmed, interstate commerce completely collapses and the national security council is forced to discuss the need for martial law.

The lessons learned from the scenario showed that our leaders are unfamiliar with the implications of bioterrorist attacks, the available policy option and their consequences, that the lack of sufficient vaccines and therapies severely limits the management options, that the US healthcare system lacks "surge" capacity, and that the federal and state priorities may be unclear, differ or conflict.

As an exercise, the scenario revealed many important items which our leader must consider in order to have adequate preparedness in the case of such a biological attack.

The next speaker was Dr. Robert Rothberg. He is the site director of the New York University Hospital Center Tisch Hospital Emergency Department and serves as chairperson of the hospital's emergency preparedness committee.

Dr. Rothberg discussed the emergency preparedness plan for the NYU-Tisch Hospital in light of a chemical and/or biological emergency due to anthrax, smallpox, nerve agents, and similar items.

The NYU-Tisch Hospital emergency department is a 23 bed, 911 ambulance receiving hospital with 30,000 annual visits. It is staffed with emergency medicine, board certified emergency physicians 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

bio-terrorism seminar
Dr. Falvo discussing how germs become weapons

The lecture concluded with a discussion by Dr. Cathey Falvo on why certain organisms are of concern with respect to being used as biological weapons. Dr. Falvo is a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College (NYMC) and a professor of practice at the School of Public Health, NYMC. She is also director of international and public health at NYMC.

The doctor discussed the basic medical issues behind the such diseases such as anthrax and smallpox and how they can be weaponized. Anthrax, for example, most commonly occurs in wild and domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats, camels, antelopes, and other herbivores), but it can also occur in humans when they are exposed to infected animals or tissue from infected animals. The disease is caused by spore forming bacterium.

Smallpox, as another example, was last seen in the U.S. in 1948. It is highly contagious, has a 30% fatality rate, is spread by inhalation and was "weaponized" by the Soviet Union and other countries during the Cold War.

In general, the seminar provided a sobering look at the very real dangers and effects which can result for the release of "weaponized" biological and/or chemical agents within the populated areas of the United States.

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