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Surgeon General warns against panic

Luis Fábregas
| Friday, Oct. 12, 2001

The nation's top doctor has a simple prescription for Americans as they grow increasingly fearful of biological attacks: Don't panic.

'If people panic, we can't survive this,' U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said Thursday during a Downtown conference of the Transcultural Nursing Society sponsored by Duquesne University. 'If somebody is foolish enough that they're going to start giving smallpox vaccines, then we can't survive this.'

Though most of Satcher's hourlong talk focused on the issue of racial disparities in health care, some of the 200 nurses at the conference couldn't pass on the chance to share their own concerns about bioterrorism.

Much of the fear stems from news that one employee at a tabloid in Florida has died of anthrax and two others have tested positive for exposure. What can they do, some nurses asked, to help allay the public's fears•

Satcher, who also serves as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, told nurses their task won't be easy. He said the government has failed to educate health professionals about the realities of biological agents.

That is why thousands of people are rushing to their doctors looking to get prescriptions for Cipro tablets, a government-approved antibiotic to treat anthrax infections.

Anthrax is a bacterial disease spread by spores and generally confined to herd animals, such as sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs.

'There are physicians who feel they're going to lose patients if they don't give patients what they want,' Satcher said. 'We strongly recommend against running out to get antibiotics.'

Satcher said the public needs reassurance that, despite the criminal investigation going on in Florida, the government is ready to deal with bioterrorism.

'Our country is much more prepared for this type of thing than we were three years ago,' he said.

Satcher said there is still much to figure out about the anthrax cases in Florida. FBI agents have yet to come with any terrorist links to the cases. But a spokeswoman at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has been fielding thousands of calls from an edgy public.

In response to the growing demand for the anthrax antibiotic Cipro, the German company Bayer said yesterday it will increase its production by about 25 percent beginning Nov. 1. If necessary, Satcher said, the government has stockpiles of antibiotics at eight locations he would not disclose.

But he warned that taking the antibiotic for no reason could hasten the development of drug-resistant organisms.

'The best weapon against bioterrorism is a strong public health infrastructure,' Satcher said. 'We have to listen to CDC guidelines and we have to listen to health department guidelines.

'If they say you have to get an antibiotic then you run out and get it, but if they tell you to stay home and not get an antibiotic, like we're doing now, then you do that.'

Luis Fábregas can be reached at lfabregas@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7998.

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