Originally created 04/17/99

Health officials prepare for viral attacks



It may sound like the plot of a B movie, but a terrorist attack with an airborne virus or contaminated food at an event like the Masters Tournament is a very real threat to public health officials.

For Robert Howard of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is a scenario he can easily envision.

For East Central Health District director Frank Rumph, it is a frightening possibility that was discussed before this year's tournament and has driven him to push up planning among local authorities.

Or it could be a previously unknown virus spreading across the country, as the CDC is now tracking in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Mr. Howard, special assistant for health communications at the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, spoke Friday to graduate students at Medical College of Georgia.

About 80 percent of his time is spent educating health officials about the threats posed by bio-terrorism and new viruses and the need for local planning.

So far, the threats have mostly been hoaxes, particularly letters claiming to contain anthrax that now show up on a daily basis, Mr. Howard said.

"Unfortunately, everyone says it's just a matter of time before someone gets it right," Mr. Howard said.

An attack at an event like the Masters would likely hit not only local but international authorities, he said.

"You have people who come from all over the world to attend the Masters," Mr. Howard said. "These people are then going to get back on their airplanes and go to their homes, probably every part of the world. Do we have a system in place; are we collaborating globally to the extent that if suddenly five or six people in Spain or France end up in hospitals, are we going to be able to find out that they're having this problem and it may be associated (with the Masters)? In many cases, the answer to that question is absolutely no."

Dr. Rumph has been warning his boards of health about the threat for months and recently convened a group that includes Fort Gordon, sheriff's department and fire officials to talk about how to handle a crisis, where a problem at the Masters was discussed.

He has applied for a two-year $400,000 grant to form a response network.

"It's absolutely scary," Dr. Rumph said, and it will be up to the locals who first respond to the crisis to be ready.

Or it could be a previously unknown virus spreading through a community, as health officials are now tracking in Hong Kong and Malaysia. The outbreak of what was believed to be Japanese encephalitis and resulted in the slaughter of a half-million pigs thought to carry it turned out to be something else, Mr. Howard said.

"What we're dealing with here is a completely new virus," Mr. Howard said.

A second outbreak of Avian flu has been reported in Hong Kong, but it is a different strain from the one reported two years ago, and although two children were sickened, both recovered.

Tom Corwin can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.