Help Public Health System Help You
Byline: Dr. Mark Rosenberg
As a pediatrician, I receive a lot of telephone calls from worried parents.
Parents call the office all day (and night) about their child's fever, cough or other signs of illness. However, few doctors were prepared for the types of telephone calls we have received in the past several weeks: parents calling about anthrax and smallpox vaccines and even a few calls inquiring about the availability of gas masks.
Our offices are not alone in receiving such calls. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta received more than 500,000 inquiries to its anthrax Web site in one week, reflecting the scope of concern.
I can't offer my patients a prescription or vaccine, but I can give them a little reassurance.
I make sure parents know about the history of smallpox and that the vaccine was discontinued. And while antibiotics might be appropriate to treat a disease such as anthrax, it is important to first diagnose the condition.
Providing antibiotics to everyone carries its own risks. Many people would have allergic reactions, and the unnecessary use could increase antibiotic resistance, making it far tougher for us to treat more common infections. As more individuals purchase antibiotics, it jeopardizes our supplies, as has been demonstrated by the purchase of antibiotics in New York City following Sept. 11.
Thus, individual actions to protect against biological or chemical attacks are counterproductive. The most patriotic thing you can do is to support public health institutions in meeting all of our needs.
The government for several years has recognized the threats of chemical and biological terrorism, and the response is being augmented as public health officials evaluate potential new threats.
In addition to CDC teams that are available to monitor infectious disease threats, the federal Office of Emergency Preparedness is prepared to coordinate efforts with local and state governments if a threat or attack occurs. Emergency workers will assess the immediate impact of an incident, determine the cause and coordinate an emergency response. Teams are prepared to respond quickly to incidents in any part of the nation, as they have in New York City.
Many physicians are unfamiliar with the diagnosis of these diseases, much less prepared to treat or refer patients. As a result, we are all preparing for the possibility of seeing patients with disorders that might represent biological or chemical diseases - a task that will become more difficult as we face the influenza season with its multitude of symptoms, some of which overlap with early signs of other diseases. As President Bush said, we are all potentially on the front line of this war.
Clearly the threat of the unfamiliar and unseen is a powerful influence on us. Feelings of powerlessness might help focus our attention on the perceptions of threats.
Yet, fear is the greatest weapon of terrorists. We cannot let fear of these unknown threats dominate our daily lives or those of our children. …