Along the Tracks

Monday, June 09, 2003

Identifying an outbreak

Between bioterror threats and the SARS virus, the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to identify any type of outbreak have become paramount. Criticism of the Bush administration’s homeland security efforts have included the mantra that we are poorly prepared to identify, let alone deal with, any kind of attack involving biological agents like smallpox and anthrax, or chemicals like ricin, VX and mustard gas.

Well, I must say, this story in the Washington Post, likely to make television headlines in the coming days, seems to indicate otherwise. After just 19 cases of a smallpox-like virus, the source of illness has been identified, those infected have been quarantined, and the likely routes of transmission have been intercepted. The virus - apparently monkeypox - is quite similar to the much-feared smallpox, although less transmissible and less deadly. According to the Post report, it was transmitted from a Gambian giant rat to prairie dogs sold for pets, which then transferred the virus to their human handlers. Most cases were in the Milwaukee area, but one in Illinois and one in Indiana were also identified and quarantined.

Now, it may be early to declare victory over the monkeypox, but the initial response of the U.S. public health system is very encouraging. The same can be said of the SARS threat, which has doggedly hung on in the Far East and in Canada while never getting established in the U.S. despite about 200 identified cases. Infectious diseases are hard to battle and require constant vigilance - just like terrorism. These two unexpected test cases bode well for America’s preparedness.

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