Pediatrician conference addresses bioterrorism and children issues

By Ritu Bhatnagar, Associated Press Writer
Monday October 22, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – Pediatricians and other child-health specialists are urging officials to take steps to protect children against bioterrorism, saying they are especially vulnerable. But the biggest challenge is to prepare for a biological attack without spreading panic. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ annual conference this weekend offered panels addressing how to treat infants and children if they become infected with a bioterrorist agent. 

“They live closer to the ground, so aerosol agents with heavy particles will affect them more,” said Dr. Frederick Henretig, one of the speakers at a panel Sunday. “Their skin is thinner and they can be affected developmentally.” 

The speakers illustrated their concerns by referring to the recent anthrax infection of a 7-month-old baby in New York. The infant is the child of an NBC employee and had been in the studios’ offices, where the baby was likely exposed. 

“We know that children are much more vulnerable to a chemical exposure,” said Steve Berman, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “There’s been talk about decontamination or special uniforms or equipment, but what if those don’t fit children or don’t allow children to be cared for? 

“If we embark on smallpox vaccine or anthrax vaccine, what happens if there are complication rates for children or aren’t as effective for them? It is absolutely critical that people with pediatric specialties are involved in disaster planning,” he said. 

Berman also was quick to point out that while there are many questions that need to be addressed regarding preparedness for bioterrorism and children, there is no need for parents or pediatricians to become overly alarmed creating panic. 

Doctors from around the world attended the conference, fearing that anthrax and other types of bioterrorism may soon spread to their countries. Other sessions, part of a disaster-related series, included psychological concerns as well, such as how to talk to children about crisis and loss. 

“It’s as much in the news (in Australia) as it is here. We’re upping preparation and facilities there,” said Sally McCarthy, an emergency physician from Sydney, Australia, attending the bioterrorism panel to learn more about the affects on children. “I attended a similar conference in Chicago last week and am understanding how important it is to create a network of colleagues around the world to get better prepared.” 

Some doctors said one problem with bioterrorism is that agents are typically easy and cheap for terrorists to obtain, even though it’s often difficult to weaponize materials. 

“Any of you with two semesters of microbiology can go out and grow this stuff yourself,” said Dr. Theodore Cieslack, who also spoke at the bioterrorism panel.