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NYHQ needs assistance to thwart bioterrorism

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In the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a...

By Alexander Dworkowitz

New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens needs government funding and cooperation between residents and doctors to prevent bioterrorism, hospital officials warned at a Monday conference.

In the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a spate of anthrax infections, the NYHQ administration worked overtime to prepare for the possibility of bioterrorism hitting Queens. In October, the Flushing hospital established a bioterrorism task force, which produced a 16-page plan in December explaining the nature of the bioterrorist threat to its staff.

The hospital also created decontamination rooms and purchased additional decontamination equipment.

“As a health care institution, we are as prepared as we can be,” said John Sciortino, NYHQ senior vice president.

But in order to provide thorough vaccination of the American populace, health organizations must receive more government funding, hospital officials said.

Frederic Weinbaum, senior vice president of medical affairs at NYHQ, said the public health infrastructure of medical professionals was dramatically cut by the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

“It was deliberately eliminated by a government intent on reducing the size of government,” Weinbaum said.

In the 1950s, the public health infrastructure was large enough to vaccinate all of the country against polio, Weinbaum said. But with cuts in funding, the United States cannot vaccinate on such a large scale, Weinbaum said.

Hospitals like NYHQ and other medical research institutions also need more funding in order to adequately study infectious diseases, said James Rahal, NYHQ chairman of infectious diseases.

“Unfortunately, I have to admit from the point of view of infectious diseases we are still at a primitive state,” Rahal said. “A tremendous amount of research has to be done.”

While NYHQ is not counting on large increases in funding, the hospital is currently working on increasing communication with Queens residents in order to monitor bioterrorism.

“We have to continue to build relationships with our community,” said Frank Mineo, NYHQ director of emergency services. “If it’s a biological incident, you are going to see things happening.”

He noted that a pattern of illness as a result of bioterrorism would more likely be noticed within a community before it came to the attention of hospitals.

NYHQ is working to establish a committee of Queens residents and businesses in order to help track possible patterns of infection.

Rahal said clinical doctors must become aware of the signs of an infection of agents of possible bioterrorism, such as smallpox, anthrax, plague, botulism and tularemia.

Because of its two airports, Queens is particularly threatened by infectious diseases coming from visitors from countries.

“We do receive travelers from throughout the world and we are likely to be the first to be exposed,” said Rahal. “The bottom line is that we have to be clinically alert.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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