Biological Warfare Threat Takes Center Stage

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NEWS THAT ANTHRAX SURFACED IN NEW YORK CITY AND WASHINGTON, DC comes just as we send this issue to the printer. It follows by days the discovery of anthrax in Florida. Not surprisingly, the fear of attacks by biological and chemical weapons is taking center stage in the United States. It now dominates media coverage of the war on terror.

Clearly such events place clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology squarely in the line of fire. Responding to biological and chemical attacks requires lots of help from laboratories. In many cases, as people show up in emergency rooms, it will be the hospital labs which get the first specimens, along with the job of identifying whatever active agent has affected the patient. But that’s not to say that commercial labs, receiving specimens from physicians’ offices, may not also be first to identify patients who’ve been exposed to biological or chemical attacks.

The evidence that anthrax was deliberately sent to separate locations in two states will have a chilling effect on our society. Even as Miami officials were beginning to test postal workers for anthrax, the Miami local of the American Postal Workers Union (representing clerks and distribution workers, not mail carriers) sent a letter to the White House with a demand for safety measures and training. Imagine what would happen if workers in the post office and overnight delivery companies refuse to handle mail and packages without onerous safety precautions.

These are new threats to our society, and it is the nation’s system of laboratories which will become one of the “canaries in the coal mine.” Laboratories will be among the those healthcare providers who would be first to see and recognize patients affected by biological and chemical weapons, notifying government officials of such occurrences.

Within our industry, I predict we are undergoing an earthquake of significant proportions. As events related to the newly-declared war on terrorism shake our country, laboratories will be required to develop a whole new level of management procedures and crisis contingency plans. It will require significant investments in management time and staff training to bring this about. There is something which makes this particularly different and more than a little scary: any attacks with biological and chemical weapons directed at the public may also threaten those laboratorians who must come in contact with the victims of these attacks and their specimens.

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