Volume 16 • Issue 15 | September 9 - 15, 2003

NYU Downtown Hospital sponsors terror conference

Congressional legislation unveiled by New York Republican

By Sascha Brodsky

New York’s health care system needs to take further steps to respond effectively to another terrorism attack, officials warned Monday.

Nearly two years after the World Trade Center attack, the country still needs to improve planning for the next crisis, experts said. America could look to Israel as an example of how to prepare for the possibility of germ warfare, officials said at a symposium organized by NYU Downtown Hospital.

“While the destruction of the trade towers was an overwhelming act of destruction the majority of Americans cannot imagine what it is like to live in a place like the state of Israel where one must prepare for terrorism every day,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Also at the symposium, Congressmember John E. Sweeney (R-NY), unveiled legislation that would allocate more federal dollars to New York for those who would respond to future crises.

Since 9/11, the federal government has disbursed over $20 billion in homeland security funds directed to first responders. The current formula mandates that 40 percent of all funds administered by the Office of Domestic Preparedness (part of the Department of Homeland Security) be allocated to states equally, regardless of threat assessment, and that the other 60 percent goes out according to a blind per capita formula. Sweeney said his new formula is a comprehensive one that more accurately reflects first responder needs and the realities of a post-9/11 America.

“We must ensure our first responders receive the full funding they need based on expert assessment of the threats they face, vulnerabilities that are before them, and the consequences of future attacks,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney said his new approach to funding America’s first responders is based on a three-pronged allocation process based on threat information, vulnerabilities, and consequences. The new legislation will give Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge broad discretion to measure each of these three factors and to make allocation decisions with a greater emphasis on threat assessment.

Monday’s conference also focused on the practical aspects of dealing with another terrorist attack.

Prof. Amos Yinnon, an infectious diseases specialist from Jerusalem, said “the prospect of use of W.M.D. by terrorists is real…the casualties that can result are just beyond imagination…”

By one estimate, terrorists releasing anthrax could spread up to 15 miles and cause 125,000 deaths, he said.

One advantage biological weapons gives to terrorists is that the diseases used in some cases are self-replicating, he said. But the disadvantage is that the biological weapons must depend on the weather and are therefore unreliable. The biological weapons could also infect the terrorists who use them, he said.

Biological weapons have been used for millennia, he said. Ancient tribes used infected arrows. The Japanese used bio weapons in China during W.W. II. In Russia in 1979, a military plant that made anthrax had an accident in which at least 80 people died, Yinnon said.

During the Gulf War in 1991, when missiles were fired on Israel from Iraq, the possibility of a W.M.D. attack “was taken very, very seriously,” he said. Ever since 1991, “many things have been done to prepare the country,” Yinnon added.

Israel’s Ministry of Health has told all citizens to have sealed, airtight rooms in their homes. Citizens have been issued gas masks. Schools, hospitals and clinics have been prepared for a bio terror attack. Emergency agencies have played war games to aid in planning.

There are psychological obstacles to any response to bio terrorism, Yinnon said. The threat is so horrible that there is a tendency to deny it. Hospitals could also be worried about exposure by treating patients. Personnel should be reassured that these are “just diseases.”

Among the symptoms of a biological weapons attack is having more than one patient with an unusual disease, dead pets or apparent aerosol route of infection.

First responders have been vaccinated in Israel for some common biological weapons. While some first responders did not want to be vaccinated, there have been few side effects reported.

Experts at the symposium urged the public to make their own plans to deal with any future terrorist attack.

Dr. Eliot Lazar, a professor at Cornell University, suggested that people create a plan, assemble supply caches, rehearse elements of the plan, and evaluate their preparedness.

“Do you really feel well versed in the plans?” he asked the audience. “If there was an early dismissal do you really know where the kids would go?”

Once you do have a plan, make sure that everyone understands it, he said.

Families should have rendezvous points arranged in case of an emergency, he said.

“We are all guilty of having our connectivity for granted,” he added. “There is an expectation now of instant connectivity. What I think many people are finding is that connectivity is taken away, as happened during the blackout, we are helpless.”

Have cash on hand, he said, adding, “I don’t know of an A.T.M. machine that worked during the blackout.”

N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital is a community teaching hospital principally serving the people who live and work in Lower Manhattan. As the closest hospital the the World Trade Center, the hospital was in a first responder capacity in the September 11th disaster, and in the W.T.C. bombing in 1993. This symposium is part of an ongoing program at N.Y.U. Downtown Hospital to be available and ready to serve Lower Manhattan -- including the 375,000 people who commute into the area to work each day -- when an emergency arises.


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