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Annual meeting hopes to lessen public’s anthrax worries

By Hannah Schardt Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday October 27, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – At Berkeley’s Alta Bates Medical Center – and at hospitals across the country – panicked people are showing up, wanting to be tested for exposure to anthrax. 

“There’s a lot of anxiety-mongering going on out there, and the media are fanning the flames,” said Carolyn Kemp, spokesperson for Alta Bates. “It’s a scary time, and there’s a lot of incorrect information out there.” 

Judging by the concerns of infectious disease experts gathered this week across the Bay, the problem is growing. 

Sunday is the last day of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s 39th annual meeting, which was held Oct. 25 - Oct. 28 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.  

Bioterrorism – previously scheduled as a small part of the conference – has understandably become the focus of this year’s event. 

A hastily-planned slate of events geared toward answering questions in the wake of the current anthrax scare started off Friday with a well-attended discussion led by two experts on bioterrorism. 

The question-and-answer session, which will be repeated this morning, was led by James Snyder, an anthrax expert from the University of Louisville, and Maj. Jon Woods, a doctor in the United States Air Force. 

As they took questions from the audience, it was apparent that many of those in attendance are under pressure from the public to administer anthrax tests and antibiotics – even when it is inadvisable. 

“Nasal swabs are not that productive except for epidemiological purposes,” said Snyder. 

Woods agreed. 

“(Nasal swabs) are really not useful for deciding who should receive treatment,” he said. “It’s foolhardy to use them to decide if a person is going to receive prophylactic (treatment).” 

But many in the audience said they are having a hard time convincing the public. 

One man, who works in Long Island, New York, said he is being pressured by unions. 

“Two of the unions in our area represent a lot of postal workers,” he said. “They are not asking but demanding to be given a nasal swab.” 

He said he explains to them the uselessness of the swab for disease detection, but “their response is: ‘Are you not going to know until the first person dies?’” 

The answer, at least for now, seems to be yes. 

“We don’t know who the future targets are going to be,” said Woods. “You can’t do swabs on 260 million people. So for now, that first person in a new group is unfortunately going to be very hard to save.” 

Many in the audience – most of whom never work with bioterrorism – attended out of curiosity. 

Suzanne Phelps, 33, of Alameda said the discussion of nasal swabs “did kind of surprise me. But it makes sense when I think about it. You don’t want to go give swabs to the whole state of New York, but you don’t want to make the search so narrow that you miss anyone.” 

Phelps works for an Oakland project which studies infectious diseases – but not anthrax. She said she understands the public concern but also sees how, in excess, it could itself become a problem. 

“You have to look at the risk of exposure, “ she said. “Right now, if you’re not in Florida, Washington, D.C., New York or New Jersey, you’re not at risk. And you’re just taxing important resources if you insist on being tested.” 

Kemp agreed. The Berkeley hospital instituted a bioterrorism response plan early last year, she said, and is prepared to deal with both real threats and panic. 

“If you come in and you’re worried that you feel sick, and you’re afraid the white powder next to the coffee machine might have made you sick, we need to find that out,” said Kemp.