Medical director answers anthrax fears

October 18, 2001 12:00 am
Dr. Steve Delashmutt, medical director at St. Elizabeth Health Services ().
Dr. Steve Delashmutt, medical director at St. Elizabeth Health Services ().

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

The medical director at St. Elizabeth Health Services says there is "practically no concern" that an anthrax attack will occur in Northeastern Oregon.

Id be so greatly surprised if someone in Baker County popped up with anthrax, said Dr. Steve Delashmutt. The risk for us here is next to zero, practically speaking. Were not going to see it. It just wouldnt make sense.

But nonetheless, Delashmutt like millions of other Americans has been scanning the online literature to be ready for the unthinkable.

Delashmutt lugged an impressive sheaf of papers into a press conference at the hospital late Tuesday afternoon. Included were health advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and articles from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Like Delashmutts demeanor, the articles urge health officials not to panic in the face of anthrax and other biological agent threats.

Anthrax is common, Delashmutt said. If you go digging in the dirt out here, youll find it. Its a common bug in sheep, cattle and goats.

That form, cutaneous anthrax, is usually treated with penicillin, he said.

An aggressive infection, it can remain in the human body three or four weeks.

We see that only occasionally, maybe one or two cases a year, he said.

A patient exposed to pulmonary anthrax the strain that must be inhaled, and is potentially deadly would at first exhibit only the symptoms of a cold, Delashmutt said. Those symptoms include a cough and a general feeling of malaise.

The physician would then have to determine whether theres a credible threat that the person was exposed to anthrax. If the threat is real, he said, then the antibiotic Cipro would be prescribed.

If not, the patient would be sent on his or her way.

Since the incubation period for anthrax is between three and 45 days, theres plenty of time to begin treatment, he said.

A credible threat could include exposure to a suspicious package or letter, or exposure to airborne anthrax. That latter possibility, Delashmutt said, is extremely remote, especially in sparsely populated regions of the country.

The CDC said that for anthrax to be effective as a covert agent, it must be made into an aerosol in very fine particles.

This is difficult to do, and requires a great deal of technical skill and special equipment, a CDC advisory said. If these small particles are inhaled, life-threatening lung infection can occur, but prompt recognition and treatment are effective.

If airborne anthrax is detected, Delashmutt said, teams from the CDC and the Federal Bureau of Investigation would arrive overnight. The CDC, he said, has begun stockpiling antibiotics, although the local hospital has not.

Delashmutt said that clear, concise information about anthrax is available on the CDC website, www.bt.cdc.gov, or on the JAMA site, www.jama.ama-assn.org.

Without knowledge, people tend to put 2 and 2 together and get 16, he said. They go a little overboard with their assessments.