Officials have a plan in place for dealing with biological attacks.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- When an outbreak of meningococcal disease struck recently in southwestern Mahoning County, local officials tore a page right out of their biochemical counterterrorism handbook to deal with it.
The outbreak wasn't an act of domestic terrorism, but health and emergency officials followed those procedures in tracking and treating it, said Walter Duzzny, director of the county emergency management agency.
"In one way, shape or form, we applied most everything we do in this business, from the medical search for a cause to controlling panic in the community to exhausting local resources and the need to call in external resources," Duzzny said.
Explanation: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has instructed communities to prepare for terrorist strikes including biochemical attacks. Mahoning County developed a counterterrorism plan last year, Duzzny said.
Authorities say a chemical or biological weapon, not a bomb, would be a terrorist's weapon of choice in a rural area such as this. The aim is to spread fear and panic among the public, which happened when the meningitis cases hit.
"People were afraid. They were terrified of this thing because they didn't know what it was or where it came from," Duzzny said.
Because biological materials can't necessarily be seen or detected and sometimes take time to grow and cause a disease, it is almost impossible to know that a biological attack has occurred.
Biological terrorism is the release of infectious microbes or toxins to produce illness or death in people, animals or plants, according to a FEMA fact sheet.
Such attacks have taken place since as far back as the late 18th century, when British officials provided American Indians with blankets that had been used by smallpox patients.
When the Indians covered themselves with the blankets, they contracted the disease, causing many of them to become sick and die, the FEMA information said.
As recently as 1986, more than 750 people became ill in Oregon when a political group poisoned salad bars with salmonella in an attempt to influence an upcoming election.
What's being done: If an attack were to happen here, Duzzny said he's confident that the county's plan and personnel are ready to handle it, based on what he saw during the meningitis outbreak.
"I think it's important for the community to know that there is a cohesive plan in place to address these things," he said.
The county board of health monitors the community for any sign that "something is amiss on a large scale," Duzzny said.
If that happens, plans are set in place to identify the problem, pinpoint its cause, treat the victims and try to prevent it from spreading. That requires involvement by health, government and safety officials from all affected communities, Duzzny said.
That's why local officials are continually drilled on what to do in the event of a biological or chemical outbreak, whether it's deliberately or accidentally released into the community.
"All those procedures we used in dealing with the meningococcal disease could be related to a terrorist incident," he said. "Or you could apply it to a strain of the flu. The plan is flexible."
Even the county engineer's office became involved, providing barricades, orange cones and flashing highway signs to help with traffic control during vaccinations of students and staff members at West Branch and Sebring high schools.
Duzzny said he intends to write a report of how local officials handled the outbreak and share it with other agencies across the country.
"In this business we are always looking for a better way of doing things," he said. "Maybe this will help someone else. Maybe they'll tell us something we can do differently if it happens again."