Study says Arkansas Vulnerable to Bioterrorism & Infectious Disease Outbreak

February 3, 2004 -- Posted at 3:04 p.m. CST

JONESBORO -- The discovery of Ricin in a senate office building in Washington, D.C. has brought the threat of bioterrorism back into the spotlight. But when you think of terrorism you don't think of it happening in here in Region 8.

Today's events in Washington make the reality of a new study hit closer to home. The American Medical Association released a list of states likely to be vulnerable to bioterrorism attack or an outbreak of infectious disease...and Arkansas was on that list.

"People often think that bioterrorism means someone releasing some kind of gas or bomb and really, the type of bioterrorism attack that the American Medical Association is referring to is more a disease or epidemic that might impact the state. I don't think we are very likely to be targeted because our rural population," said Kathryn Blackman who serves as the NEA Regional Leader of Bioterrorism Preparation.

With funding from the federal government, Arkansas has been working on becoming more prepared....dividing the state into seven regions. These regions developed a bioterrorism plan educating hospital staff and emergency medical service providers.

"Communication is the key, and we've found that anytime we've had a disaster drill, even in the past. That is always the key piece is knowing whats going on and being able to identify trends and episodes before they become a huge problem," said Blackman.

It's identifying those trends and episodes that put Arkansas on the list in the first place. The study analyzed an outbreak of whooping cough that infected more than a thousand Arkansans two years ago.

During the outbreak, many rural areas lacked the staff to collect specimens and the only lab available was in Little Rock.

Jack Richardson of the Craighead County Emergency Services says that's what needs to change.

"This is the way that we find out something is happened. Doctors and hospitals report it to the Center for Disease Control. Then the Center for Disease Control gathers all of these statistics and tells us, hey, it looks like you're having an outbreak of something in your area. The same way with the bioterrorism. They'll look at it and say it looks like something's happening," said Richardson.

But worrying about the threat of bioterrorism or the outbreak of infectious disease won't do us any good...

"We don't need to be worried about it, but we do need to be aware that these things can happen," said Richardson.

The AMA study and the bioterrorism threat in Washington comes in the wake of the announcement of a $274 million Bio-Surveillance program. The federally funded program is designed to protect the nation against bioterrorism and to strengthen the public health infrastructure.