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The School Post-9/11

By Jennifer Hudman and Rod Graham

In the wake of Sept. 11 and the recent anthrax bioterrorist attacks, students, faculty, and staff have taken on additional responsibilities and endeavors as the School confronts the latest threat to public health:

  • On Oct. 24, Lynn Goldman, MD, got a call from the president of the American Postal Workers Union, asking her to provide technical advice to a group of Washington, D.C., postal workers on how to protect against anthrax. Goldman, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences, quickly pulled together a team at the School, and two days later, she and Clifford Mitchell, MD, MS, MPH '91, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, were meeting with the postal employees. "It was obvious the workers had received most of their information from the press," says Goldman, "so we're now working on getting them consistent information."

    On learning about how mail-sorting rooms operate, Goldman was struck by how the letter-sorting equipment was cleaned by means of compressed air. "I began to wonder, Could the cleaning machines blow anthrax spores right out of a sealed envelope and then disperse them throughout the room? Can spores be transferred between letters?" Goldman's team will develop a training program for postal workers on recognizing chemical and biological hazards and what to do about them.
  • In the past few weeks, the Office of Communications has seen a tremendous spike in interest from the media and general public requesting both information and interviews with faculty about bioterrorism. "The School is an institution full of experts and, through us, the media and general public can learn about bioterrorism and public health," says Tim Parsons, associate director of Public Affairs. "It is our responsibility to help inform the public about these important issues, however we can." 

    On many days in October, Parsons and Ming Tai, media relations coordinator, were together fielding more than 100 phone calls from CNN, the New York Times, the BBC, the New Delhi Telegraph, and many other news organizations.
  • After Sept. 11, the work of Ellen Silbergeld, PhD, on how agriculture's overuse of antibiotics produces drug-resistant superbugs, took on increased urgency. One of the antibiotics used in factory farms to boost the growth of chickens and turkeys is enrofloxacin, which is largely metabolized by the birds into a drug called ciprofloxacin, or Cipro — the principal drug now used to fight anthrax in humans.

    "The organism that causes anthrax, Bacillus anthracis, like most bacteria — which are smarter than we are — can develop resistance to Cipro," notes Silbergeld, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences. "If people are now using B. anthracis as a warfare agent, shouldn't we be asking whether our agricultural practices are compromising Cipro's ability to fight anthrax in humans? And hadn't we better be doing something about this milieu of resistance that's being inadvertently created by the uncontrolled use of enrofloxacin in poultry?" 
  • The Student Outbreak Response Team (SORT) organized a weeklong lecture series on the topic of bioterrorism in early November. Angeline David, MHS candidate in Epidemiology and co-coordinator of SORT, felt that informing students was important. "As future public health practitioners, we wanted to be proactive and help students be more aware of the current issues," she says. 

    The series examined bioterrorism and its public health effects from various perspectives, including risk perception and management, public health preparation for bioterrorism, and psychological concerns.