PREPARING FOR THE WORST

October 11, 2001 12:00 am

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The front line in the war against dangerous diseases will be fought in the hospital laboratories, the doctors offices and in the public health arena, and La Grandes warriors are training for any battle whether its nature or human caused.

At Grande Ronde Hospital, microbiologist Sandy Larison has attended workshops and training sessions to prepare to identify rarely seen bacteria and other toxic organisms.

A lot of these have been around a long time, said Sharon Butler, who directs the hospitals lab. We are heightening our awareness so well be thinking along these lines.

The hospital lab has not seen any organisms that would be associated with bioterrorism or an outbreak of a deadly disease, she said.

We have the information available so if one of these comes through, we have the information in the back of our minds, and well be likely to recognize it, Butler said.

Close ties with the state Health Division are vital in the flow of information about dangerous diseases.

Butler, as well as the hospitals infection control nurse practitioner, Vicki Hill Brown, and Dr. James Winde, public health officer, said the Health Division has been very involved with local health care agencies for some time. An information network has been set up, and the state has provided a reference notebook for the hospital.

Were ahead of the game, Butler said.

Some of the more dangerous diseases, such as anthrax, appear similar to flu in the early stages, Hill Brown said, but those diseases progress more rapidly than ordinary flu.

With flu, youll get better soon, but with these diseases you do not get better, she said. People with questions about their illness should call their health care provider.

Lab cultures usually provide good clues as to the type of disease, she said.

The need for preparation extends beyond the hospital, and Winde said a prepared health care community is vital to recognizing and treating disease. To that end, a bioterrorism preparedness committee is being formed, he said.

Weve been working for two years at the state and local levels to form a committee, but there hasnt been much interest until lately, he said.

David Still, executive director of the Center For Human Development, said the public health nurses are briefed every day on the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and the state Health Division.

Good public health is necessary for dealing with these incidents, he said.

Winde said the flow of information among doctors, the hospital and the public health nurses is good.

Wed know very, very quickly (about a dangerous disease), he said. When you walk through the hospital, you hear who (which doctor) has what kinds of diseases.

The transportation of antibiotics and other medicines to fight a disease outbreak could be a problem, because the Union County Airport does not have instrument rating, and planes cannot land or take off at night.

Winde said that emergency workers have solved that problem by recognizing that large supplies of medicines coming in to treat in an emergency situation must be brought by ground transpor- tation.

Weve had conversations about getting these medicines on the ground and getting through with no delays, he said. If Umatilla is closed, it could cut us off, but that has been taken care of.

Although Winde strongly supports good preparation to identify and deal with an outbreak of disease, he said that organizing and distributing anthrax and similar virulent bacteria would be almost impossible.

Biological agents dont work well as agents of mass destruction, Winde said. The problem is distribution getting it out. Thats extremely complex and a very expensive process.

Nature is the biggest terrorist. Nature is far more likely to release toxins than people are.