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Highlights of News Briefing

Friday, October 19, 2001

Anthrax and Other Bioterrorism Issues
General Comments:

Bioterrorism is the use of infectious agents by terrorists.

No human anthrax in Oklahoma since at least 1945.

No environmental specimens tested in our Public Health Laboratory have tested positive. As of this date, have tested about 150 samples and all have tested negative.

There is no evidence that anyone in Oklahoma is at an increased risk for anthrax exposure.

The likelihood of any substance found randomly in the environment testing positive for anthrax is almost nil.

However, Oklahomans should be alert to the possibility that these occurrences can happen. If they received an item in the mail that is threatening or has some unidentified substance, they should call 911 or their local law enforcement. (The response will vary locally.) If they receive an item in the mail from someone they don’t know that does not appear to be suspicious, they should not open and simply discard. The bottom line is that our laboratory analysis will be stretched beyond capacity if we tried to analyze every single piece of suspicious material.

Oklahoma has a surveillance system in place for infectious diseases coordinated by the state health department and executed at the local level through county health departments and their partnerships with infection control practitioners. This system has been placed on high alert to be aware of unusual occurrences of disease.

We caution against irrational prescribing of antibiotics at this time. Unless there is a documented case of anthrax or a documented exposure to anthrax, there is no reason to prescribe antibiotics.

Questions and Answers:

Q. Does the OSDH laboratory analysis for anthrax or other biologic agents require any unusual procedures?

A. For environmental specimens, some basic laboratory techniques are employed and then if necessary, more sophisticated laboratory testing is used.

Q. Is the OSDH laboratory testing for anthrax only?

A. No, we are looking for any suspicious biologic agents.

Q. What is the time frame for testing each specimen?

A. Initial screening takes about one hour; if suspicious, can take two to three more hours and we will culture the specimen.

Q. CDC now says we should be alert to other agents such as Ebola or smallpox; can the OSDH test for these?

A. These agents are part of a long list of potential biological agents. Our laboratory cannot test for all of them but we can employ more sophisticated laboratories at CDC.

Q. Can the state support large-scale treatment for persons who may have been exposed to biologic agents?

A. We have a large supply of antibiotics at the OSDH. Depending on the size of the outbreak and nature of the outbreak, it is difficult to tell if that would be sufficient. We would also have access to the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, which could provide medicines and supplies within 12 hours. For smallpox, there is no therapy. Prevention would involve vaccination; currently there are 12 million to 15 million doses of vaccine available nationally. There are plans to bolster this supply. It is true that persons previously vaccinated for smallpox would likely have some weakened immunity; of course, there is a whole generation of people who have not been vaccinated for smallpox. The World Health Organization and other groups are currently re-evaluating if their recommendations for smallpox vaccination should be changed.

Q. How much skill does it take to produce anthrax?

A. In general, it would take some level of skill and sophisticated equipment to produce anthrax.

Q. Who are the personnel working in the OSDH laboratory who are conducting the analysis?

A. Currently there are four microbiologists working on the analysis full time. This number may/may not be sufficient depending on the volume of specimens that come in to the laboratory.

Q. What would these microbiologists be doing otherwise?

A. The Public Health Laboratory functions as a reference laboratory to provide more sophisticated testing for other labs in the state. It also helps monitor infectious diseases such as TB and HIV.

Q. Is the health department warning about possibility of food poisoning as a result of a bioterrorism event?

A. It certainly could be a possibility and has occurred previously. In early 80s in the Northwest United States, a group did contaminate a salad bar with salmonella and people became ill. We have not issued any warnings about salad bars – it would require that persons simply could not eat those items unless they were fully cooked.

Q. Has the news media contributed to the public’s hysteria?

A. The media can convey the appropriate risk and appropriate concerns and help allay the fears of the public. There are huge communications needs and we are scrambling to try to meet those needs.

Q. Has the state health department’s response to bioterrorism events stretched the budget?

A. It could. We will have to see if we need to augment our current resources.

Q. Aren’t there antibiotics other than Cipro that would work against anthrax?

A. Yes, doxycycline is a broad spectrum antibiotic that would work just as effectively.

Q. Has there been a significant depletion of resources statewide as a result of the bioterrorism events nationally?

A. Yes, in some areas there may have been a significant depletion of resources, for example, picking up samples to send to the laboratory, but it is important to recognize this is public health at work. Any system can be overwhelmed, eventually.

Q. If the laboratory hasn’t found anthrax, what is all that white powder?

A. We can’t always identify what the powder is, or even find a “powder” in a sample submitted for analysis, but we can determine whether it is a biological organism.


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