State Steps Up Smallpox Defense

Article excerpt

Byline: P. Douglas Filaroski, Times-Union staff writer

Florida health officials are sending out materials to help doctors identify smallpox in the event of a possible bioterrorist attack.

The possibility seemed real to viewers of the TV show ER last week, and to federal health investigators who tested a Gainesville woman for smallpox in September.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the University of Florida student developed vaccinia, or cowpox, similar to smallpox.

The diagnosis came two days after the woman arrived at a hospital with pus-filled lesions, sounding an alarm in county, state and federal offices.

"We knew we had a pox virus. We said to ourselves, 'Could it be?' " said Alachua County Health Administrator Tom Belcuore, who first reported the case.

The woman had previous exposure to chicken pox, ruling out that disease, Belcuore said. CDC investigators determined the 29-year-old woman contracted cowpox at a university lab where it was being studied.

The incident taught health officials the value of disseminating information about possible biological agents, Belcuore said.

Color posters depicting people with smallpox arrived at county health departments last week, part of what state officials called an ongoing campaign.

Next month, officials will mail information packages to about 50,000 doctors and health providers, said Bill Parizek, spokesman for the state Health Department.

"The idea is to educate physicians," Parizek said. "They are the front lines [in a bioterror attack] and many have never seen smallpox before."

The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jeb Bush last week that would give Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi the power to declare a public health emergency.

Under Senate Bill 1262, which Bush must sign or veto by May 29, Agwunobi would be able to enact a quarantine or require vaccinations in the event of a bioterror attack. …