Could Hold a Key to Effective Disaster Response
by Sean Flynt
With any luck,
certain research underway at Samford University's McWhorter School
of Pharmacy will never be fully tested. The school, in collaboration
with the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Center for
Disaster Preparedness [CDP] at the University of Alabama at Birmingham,
is studying how best to respond to biological and chemical disasters,
particularly those resulting from terrorist attacks.
such events may seem, they are both theoretically possible and increasingly
likely. In fact, some terrorism experts believe a lethal biological
or chemical attack in the U.S. is inevitable.
know if I'd go so far as to say it's a matter of when, not if,"
said McWhorter Assistant Dean Susan Alverson, a CDP executive committee
member. "In fact, people tend to underestimate the technical
difficulty of developing and successfully using a biological weapon
such as anthrax or smallpox."
scenarios are theoretically possible, said Alverson, but not as
likely as less technically ambitious chemical attacks, such as the
Aum Shinrikyo cult's release of deadly Sarin gas on Tokyo commuter
trains in 1995. That attack injured 5,000 people and killed 12.
But a 1993 U.S. government study concluded that the successful airborne
release of weaponized anthrax spores over a major city would be
is to answer vitally important questions about how medical treatment
would be delivered in the event of a biological or chemical disaster.
Surprisingly, neighborhood pharmacies may be one key to effective
thing we're trying to do is look at what [drug] stockpiles are available,"
said Alverson. "We want to survey all pharmacies, hospitals
and wholesalers to see what's on hand on any given day so that if
something happened in Mobile, for example, we could mobilize Birmingham,
Huntsville, Anniston, etc."
she and her colleagues also will study how Alabama and, by extension,
other states, can most effectively use federally prepared "push
packages," massive bundles of supplies designed for emergency
airlift throughout the nation. Alverson said local pharmacies might
help solve the significant logistical problems associated with unpacking,
storing and distributing these shipments, each of which requires
5,000 square feet of storage space.
third area of inquiry may answer one of the most fundamental questions
of disaster preparedness; how to detect an unfolding crisis before
it's too late to help. Alverson explained that identifying a biological
terrorist attack is particularly difficult because biological weapons
can create slow-motion medical catastrophes difficult to spot and
she said, "It could be days before we realize there's a problem."
But she envisions a monitoring network built on the existing relationship
between pharmacies and third-party payers. She said pharmacies report
prescriptions as they are sold, and insurance companies collect
that data every 24 hours. That makes it possible for experts stationed
at those companies to monitor daily reports for spikes in certain
kinds of prescriptions that could represent a disaster in progress.
even the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness is waiting to see
if such ambitious visions will lead to foolproof plans for disaster
response. And foolproof they must be, because errors in planning
could mean loss of life in the event of a real-world test.