Responding to bioterrorism in Tulsa

Monday, October 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The FBI is investigating the possibility of bioterrorism after a second possible case of anthrax was confirmed Monday in Florida. A 63-year-old Boca Raton man died Friday of pulmonary anthrax.

Monday, health officials confirmed that anthrax bacteria were discovered in the nose of one of his co-workers, who was hospitalized for an unrelated illness. News on Six reporter Glenda Silvey says the co-worker is in stable condition, and has not been diagnosed with anthrax. But the second appearance in one week of an organism seen only 18 times in the 20th century raised strong concern, including here in Tulsa.

The FBI sealed off the office building housing the supermarket tabloid, "The Sun," where both men worked, and where the organism was also found on a computer keyboard. All 300 employees will be tested for the disease and given antibiotics. A local health official, RN Connie Bourne says the second case raises concerns that something could have been released in the area. "It's not a disease that's transmitted from person to person, so you would suspect that it would have to be some kind of similar exposure setting." Bourne says St Francis is monitoring bulletins from the Centers for Disease Control closely, and state health officials have reissued information on identifying and responding to bioterrorism. Bourne says unlike some other biological agents, anthrax would show up on many tests for other diseases. “So it could be picked up or potentially identified without using a lot of specialized media or testing."

OU-Tulsa President Ken Levit, recent special counsel to the CIA, says the threat of bioterrorism is real. “The threat of chemical or biological warfare or terrorism is probably the most harrowing, because it's the most easily developed of weapons of mass destruction. It's also very easy to conceal the development of anthrax, which also makes it very difficult for law enforcement or the military to go in and take out that kind of capability." Levit says biowarfare presents new and unknown challenges for the defense and health officials to manage. "If there's a, God forbid, a bomb goes off, we know how to respond to that, we know how to get there, and we know how to assess the problem. But this is a whole other world."

Levit says there's no doubt that bin Laden wants to develop and use bio and chemical warfare and in fact has called it his religious duty. Both Levit and Bourne say even though the second case of anthrax raises concern, it's still important not to panic, but to be alert to what’s going on, report anything unusual, and be ready to respond.