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Health officials brief Marshall on bioterror

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Queens Borough President Helen Marshall expressed concern at her regular cabinet meeting about the borough’s vulnerability to bioterrorism because of its large immigrant population as the nation headed toward a war in Iraq.

Speaking at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, Marshall posed several questions to city health officials to assess the borough’s risk from deadly bioterrorist threats. She compared the potential threat of a smallpox outbreak to the borough’s current problem of a high tuberculosis infection rate as a result of immigration.

“The more likely situation causing a smallpox outbreak would be from a ‘suicide bomber’ type who comes into the country infected and comes in contact with people,” said Dr. Susan Blank, assistant commissioner for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “There has not been a case of naturally occurring smallpox in New York City since 1947.”

There has been widespread concern in the United States that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or terrorist groups may attempt to stage a bioterrorism attack in response to an American military strike in Iraq. These fears first surfaced after the Sept. 11 destruction of the World Trade Center.

Blank tried to address the borough president’s apprehension by explaining that smallpox was eradicated throughout the world in 1979, making it impossible for an immigrant entering Queens to be infected with the deadly disease. She said her agency is constantly working with the federal government to monitor 911 calls to see if complaints called into that system ever form a pattern of symptoms that could resemble a smallpox outbreak.

Marshall, along with other community board district managers attending the meeting, listened to Blank’s presentation as she outlined city plans to inoculate all residents in the event of a smallpox outbreak. Blank said the city will be capable in the next year to deliver a smallpox vaccine to all residents within five days.

Marshall also questioned Blank on the city’s readiness to deal with bioterrorism threats from other diseases, such as the plague, and whether borough residents would be safe in any future attack.

“We’re trying to make our planning as generic as possible to deal with everything,” Blank said.

Blank said phase one of the federal government’s plan to deal with a smallpox outbreak began on Feb. 19 and that city officials will initiate a voluntary vaccination program for the general public in 2004. She said city health officials, firefighters, police officers, emergency service technicians and hospital workers have already been inoculated.

“We’re very nervous about this because it has high consequences,” she said. “But overall, the risk of an outbreak is very low.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156

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