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Biopreparedness Forum Examines Polonium Poisoning, Other Threats
Radioactivity and emerging disease threats each present its own set of challenges
Experts charged with protecting the United States from bioterrorism, emerging diseases and other threats are paying close attention to a former Soviet Union spy’s poisoning with a radioactive substance that is hard to detect and lethal in microscopic amounts.
Polonium poisoning was a “hot topic” at a biopreparedness conference organized by the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness at The University of Texas School of Public Health and the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences at Eisenhower. The conference at the Houston Marriott Medical Center on Jan. 12 and 13 attracted health care professionals interested in learning how to prepare for potential biological threats.
Polonium-210 has been in the news since the death in London of Alexander Litvinenko on Nov. 23, 2006. Traces of a deadly radioactive isotope were found in his blood, and there is speculation that the substance may have been slipped into his food or drink. Highly toxic, one thousandth of a gram can lead to death within 20 days.
Robert Emery, Dr.P.H., assistant vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, delivered a briefing on “Preparedness Impacts of the Recent Polonium Poisoning Events.”
“Disaster preparedness professionals now must be aware of the possibility of the intentional poisoning of individuals with radioactive materials that are not easily detected by existing monitoring equipment,” Emery said.
Polonium-210 emits alpha radiation that kills sensitive cells. Victims of polonium poisoning may experience symptoms similar to food poisoning, followed by the breakdown of blood cells and the immune system. Treatments include: antibiotics, bone marrow transplants and chelation, a medical stripping of heavy metals from the body. Chemet, a drug developed by Ovation Pharmaceuticals, also treats the symptoms of radiation exposure.
Emery, also associate professor of occupational health in the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness, said, “The good news from the case so far is that the standard precautions employed by health care providers appeared to be sufficient to prevent contamination. The bad news is that many organizations presently lack the capability of detecting the type of radiation emitted from the Po-210 radionuclide.”
Polonium poisoning has been added to the list of threats involving radioactivity, a list that includes a “dirty bomb” – the use of a conventional explosive with a lethal, biological, chemical or nuclear agent – damage to existing nuclear facilities and tactical nuclear devices, Emery told the conference.
Also addressing emerging disease threats, the conference featured presentations on the avian flu, hemorrhagic fevers, anthrax, smallpox and botulism, by representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the UT Medical Branch at Galveston and other organizations. “
Each of these problems presents its own set of challenges and requires the rapid dissemination of cutting-edge information and development of new technologies,” said Scott R. Lillibridge, M.D., professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness. He previously served as special assistant for National Security and Emergency Management to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
A resource for health care professionals in the biodefense field, the Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness was created to educate the frontline public health, medical and emergency workforce, key leaders, and other professionals to respond to threats such as bioterrorism, emerging infectious diseases, and related emergencies.
By Rob Cahill, Institutional Advancement
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