Hospitals Take New Approach as Bioterrorism Threat Looms ER Doctors Are Being Trained to Detect, Treat Illnesses Caused by Chemical Weapons

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Byline: Teresa Mask Daily Herald Staff Writer

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CORRECTION/date 10-13-2001: To correct some editions of last Sunday's Daily Herald, the year of the last known case of smallpox is 1977. In 1980, the disease was declared eradicated.

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As the nation prepares to do battle with terrorists, Chicago and its suburbs loom as a target for one of the enemy's most likely weapons - germs.

It's home to the world's busiest airport. It's one of the nation's most populated regions. And, at any given time, thousands of people make a tempting target as they gather for concerts, sporting events and conventions.

The question, then, naturally follows: Are we prepared here? The short answer, according to local experts, is, "Yes, but..."

"While we are ready to deal with something tomorrow, more needs to be done and is being done," says Dr. David Hassard, attending physician in the emergency room at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. "Our meetings are becoming more frequent and our efforts more intense."

For instance, Hassard said doctors are being retrained to detect and treat biological and chemical diseases - many of them have never seen the smallpox rash because the last United States case was in 1980.

The medical community, in particular, is preparing for this stage of a potential war because it knows it may be the first to detect an attack. Germ warfare, for the most part, is invisible because it is spread through the air. People won't even know they've been hit until they start having symptoms - often days or weeks later.

The medical community is honing in on six diseases because of their potential for use by terrorists: smallpox, anthrax, plague, botulism toxin, tularemia and hemorrhagic fevers.

To be prepared for an attack, area hospitals also are holding symposiums on bioterrorism and are surprising staff with disaster drills.

They also are:

- Formulating coordinated disaster plans with neighboring hospitals who often are their competitors.

- Establishing a plan-of-action with the county, regional and state health officials.

- Talking to schools and municipalities about possible use of their facilities in a crisis.

- Using an electronic intranet so that the medical community can share information.

Most hospitals are equipped with a decontamination room and a stockpile of antibiotics to treat hundreds of patients during the first wave of a bioterror attack. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has enough antibiotics to treat 2 million people for about 60 days, which the federal government promises can be shipped anywhere within 12 hours.

Once a biological disease is detected, disseminating that information to other medical facilities and the public centers around a phone tree. …