State trying to alleviate fears of chemical or biological attack

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- State officials are advising Alaskans not to buy gas masks or stockpile vaccines or antibiotics to protect against chemical or biological attacks.

The recommendation follows numerous calls from fearful Alaskans in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some of the phone calls are from people concerned about Anthrax, which follows news reports of a Florida man who died from the chemical agent. Anthrax is one bacterial agent used in germ warfare.

Antibiotics are used to treat such bacteria and some other chemical agents used in biological or chemical attacks.

''We have people who are ill right now who need those antibiotics to return to health or save their lives,'' said Dr. Beth Funk, state medical epidemiologist.

Concerns over obtaining vaccines for smallpox have also been raised by callers, Funk said.

The United States stopped producing the smallpox vaccine for the general public when the virus was eradicated in 1983. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has some smallpox vaccine in reserve for emergencies and to inoculate scientists who work with similar viruses in laboratories.

Should an outbreak occur, reserve vaccines would be used to inoculate people exposed to the airborne virus, Funk said.

There is no treatment for advanced smallpox, she said. The vaccine helps prevent the disease from progressing in the body, she said. Smallpox vaccinations last 15 years, she said.

Anthrax vaccines also are not available to the general public but are given to the military, Funk said.

Anthrax is not contagious but can be contracted by breathing airborne spores or by eating contaminated meat.

The state also advised against buying gas masks, saying such a device would offer little protection in a surprise chemical attack.

The state Emergency Coordination Center opened Oct. 1 and is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The state also is developing tests to quickly diagnose biological threats in patients, and is teaching public health workers to detect illnesses such as anthrax, said Karen Pearson, state public health director.

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