DeLauro returns to school to learn about anthrax

After the recent anthrax scares that led to the closure of the Hart Senate building and the House side of the Capitol, most legislators probably want to stay as far away from the bacterium as possible.

Not U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

Yesterday, DeLauro spent the morning with several doctors in a pathogen lab at the Yale School of Medicine, learning about the procedures they use to diagnose anthrax and looking at a related organism under a microscope.

DeLauro said she visited the facility to discuss how much money would be required to upgrade it to deal with possible bioterrorism attacks.

Dr. Frank Bia, the co-director of the medical school’s International Health Program, walked the congresswoman through the steps of a hypothetical scenario in which a patient came in complaining of a fever and was then diagnosed with an anthrax-like disease.

DeLauro then asked about the capacity of other hospitals in the state, about post-Sept. 11 pressures on the laboratory, whether Yale-New Haven Hospital has the capability to handle a small-pox outbreak, and what resources the hospital will need to upgrade in order to handle possible bioterrorism incidents.

Dr. Stephen Edberg, the director of the Clinical Microbiology Lab, told DeLauro that Yale-New Haven would need supplemental funding to assist in research and treatment in the event of a biological attack.

Asked by a reporter for a specific level of funding that would be required to upgrade the lab, Bia said that the necessary funding would be difficult to determine before the doctors confer with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state government.

“It will include zeroes,” he said.

But Bia said that the existing labs can be upgraded, making new construction unnecessary.

“It is important for [DeLauro] to see that a whole new facility doesn’t need to be built,” he said.

Edberg emphasized the importance of communication with the CDC, other hospitals and the state.

“You should not do this in a vacuum,” he said. “If we find something, everyone should know about it.”

Bia also told DeLauro that, while some are concerned about foreign nationals residing in the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax outbreak, the wide variety of national backgrounds of the physicians in the disease laboratories is important. For example, he added, Iranian doctors are more familiar with anthrax because it occurs naturally in farm settings in Iran.

“The diversity of our physicians is our strength,” he said.

Earlier in the tour, DeLauro asked the doctors to explain what it means to “weaponize” anthrax, a term the congresswoman said she thought might have caused unnecessary panic when officials used it to describe the anthrax-laden letter received by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

They explained to her that it involves changing the physical characteristics of the anthrax into a fine white powder that smells like talcum powder. To emphasize the severity of the attacks, they told her the story of the scientist who opened the Daschle letter in a controlled laboratory setting — he was shocked by how much anthrax was in the envelope and how highly concentrated and fine it was.

Based on this information, DeLauro said she was reassured that the government’s response was appropriate.

“We did the right thing by closing the buildings down,” she said, while conceding that the response was too slow to the cases stemming from a Washington postal facility.

DeLauro also said that Congress is currently considering the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2001, which would provide grants to hospitals for infectious disease reasearch, lead to a review of imported food, and increase the nation’s stockpile of the smallpox vaccine.

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