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Last Updated

21 Oct 2002

Source:  United Press International, October 21, 2002.

Bioterror info for docs

By Steve Mitchell, UPI Medical Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Johns Hopkins University soon will begin providing an electronic network to deliver rapid treatment information to physicians in the event of another bioterrorist attack, United Press International has learned.

The network became necessary because obtaining critical medical information proved to be frustratingly difficult for many doctors during the anthrax attacks last year.

The aptly named Clinician's Biodefense Network will connect physicians with biodefense experts and provide them with information about treating and recognizing symptoms caused by biological weapons such as smallpox, anthrax and botulism, Lew Radonovich, team leader of the project and senior fellow at the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, told UPI.

There is a desperate need for such a system because "a number of physicians have gone on record as saying their best source of (medical) information was CNN" during the anthrax attacks last fall, Radonovich said. "Doctors just didn't know where to turn to find out what to do."

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta distributes information to state and local public health departments, "the clinical information needs to get out to the doctors who see patients," Radonovich said.

"The idea with our network is that it would provide doctors with relatively timely updates that will be distributed quickly," he explained. "The situation with a bioterrorism attack is very unique ... because it would require a very rapid response" to stem the disease outbreak, whereas in a lot of routine medical situations physicians can take more time to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment decision.

The new network will give physicians a central source to find treatment information "so they don't have to go find it," Radonovich said. "Physicians are inundated with information and don't have time to look up the information that they need."

The network also will provide updates once or twice a month about new developments in the field of biological weapons "to keep physicians up to speed on what's going on," he said. In addition to treatment information, the network will "allow physicians to communicate with each other if there's an outbreak."

Such communication could be critical to identifying those affected by biological agents quickly, Dan Hanfling, director of emergency management and disaster preparedness for Inova Health Systems in Fairfax, Va., told UPI. He said he put out an alert to hospitals in Northern Virginia last fall about the signs of anthrax infection immediately after hearing of the first case in Florida. This action might have been what enabled a doctor in the emergency room of Inova Fairfax Hospital to make the diagnosis of anthrax in a man who was a postal worker at the Brentwood facility.

During the anthrax mailings last October, which killed five people -- including two postal workers -- Fairfax Hospital saw two Brentwood employees (cases 14 and 17) who had contracted anthrax. Although both survived, initially it was hard to filter out who was and was not exposed to the deadly agent because a large number of patients came into the emergency room mistakenly claiming they had contracted anthrax, Hanfling said. However, one astute doctor discovered one of her patients worked at Brentwood and realized Brentwood handled mail for the Senate Hart Office Building, which had received a letter contaminated with anthrax.

"That type of information would be important to get out to physicians so they can make the connection in a future attack," Hanfling said.

The network might also prove useful for doctors who may not have focused much attention on diseases caused by biological weapons, Hanfling said. "I don't think anyone feels this threat as critically as the folks in New York and (Washington)," which experienced the anthrax mailings firsthand, he said. "In certain parts of the country, there is still this concentration on the issues at hand" and pressing immediate needs, he said. So the network will be important to getting information out to those doctors who have let bioterror information slip by the wayside.

"In the heat of the battle, we need to make sure that pertinent information is getting into the hands of those who need it," Hanfling said.

The American Public Health Association also supports the new network as being "on the right track," spokesman David Fouse told UPI. The need for timely distribution of treatment information "is critical," he said, because many physicians never have seen these diseases and do not have clinical knowledge about how to recognize them and treat them.

Thousands of physicians around the country have expressed interest in the new network, Radonovich said. He hopes to launch it by the end of the year, "starting off with a thousand or so subscribers and building it up to more than 20,000." The system is privately funded and Johns Hopkins is the only major center to have signed on so far, he said.