We cannot read the news, watch television, or listen to the radio anymore without hearing of terrorism and the use of anthrax as a weapon of biological terrorism. In a world that seems to have gone crazy, how can reasonable people at a local level take sensible precautions and make prudent decisions?
I am happy to have this opportunity to share what I am doing as director of Yale University Health Services and what the University as a whole is doing through President Richard Levin’s Security Task Force. As director of UHS, I am fortunate to work on the Security Task Force with capable partners in our Police Department, the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, our Schools of Medicine and Nursing, Yale-New Haven Hospital, and our local and state agencies.
Together we are acquiring the information and reinforcing the systems to respond quickly and effectively. Terrorist attacks on our community, while possible, are extremely unlikely. Nonetheless, our level of preparedness is excellent.
The role of clinicians in uncertain times such as these is to ensure the rapid recognition and reporting of unusual or suspicious medical conditions and disease patterns. Many of the illnesses caused by bioterrorism can be prevented or treated if identified quickly. Early identification and public health measures can also limit the spread of disease.
At UHS we meet daily to review the clinical incidents and trends, and we participate in a local network of health facilities to permit rapid dissemination of information. I am confident that we have both the clinical expertise to recognize these illnesses as well as the local and national communication networks to ensure that our public health colleagues get the information they need.
When we think about emergency preparedness, it is all too easy to forget basic common sense. An important responsibility of UHS clinicians and staff, therefore, is to make sure that the members of our community do not neglect their routine health care.
Yes, the early symptoms of anthrax may be a cough, or flu-like symptoms. But remember that colds and flu are extremely common while agents of biological terrorism are very rare.
Therefore it is vital to remain calm and to avoid alarm resulting from mundane illnesses that circulate within groups of people living and studying together in close quarters.
Even as we contemplate the threat of bioterrorism, we should remember that there are plenty of sensible precautions to help prudent individuals stay healthy. There may be no drama in eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and driving safely, but these are common sense measures, and they are very likely to suffice, even in this time of anxiety.
Meanwhile, rest assured that the University community is taking a very active approach to emergency preparedness.
Paul Genecin is a clinical professor of internal medicine at the Yale Medical School and director of Yale University Health Services.