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Release:  Oct. 8, 1999

UI Hygienic Laboratory is part of national bioterrorism detection network

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory will play a key role in a nationwide networking effort to quickly identify and track potential terrorist attacks with anthrax or other deadly biological agents.

The National Laboratory Network for Bioterrorism Detection was launched in mid-September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its mission is to link hospitals, federal agencies and public health laboratories around the United States and aid in detecting, tracking and controlling outbreaks caused by biological agents.

The Hygienic Laboratory is one of 40 laboratories designated to conduct tests on suspected biological agents submitted by hospitals or other state laboratories, said Mary J.R. Gilchrist, Ph.D., director of the Hygienic Laboratory. The laboratories participating in the network will function at different levels of capacity. The Hygienic Laboratory will have advanced capabilities, she said. Funding for the enhancement of these capabilities, provided through a cooperative agreement with the CDC, is just over $280,000 for the first year.

"For example, if a patient goes to a hospital with symptoms of anthrax or disease from some other biothreat agent, the hospital will run tests and send the organism to us for additional tests to determine whether such an agent is involved," Gilchrist said. "If we are indeed dealing with a deadly biological agent, we will forward the specimen to the CDC and alert the federal authorities."

The CDC and public health officials could then use the network to disseminate this information quickly and monitor potential outbreaks in other parts of the United States, she added.

Confirmation of a biological agent like anthrax usually takes at least 24 hours. By working together, however, public health officials will know whether a potential outbreak is occurring and may be able to treat people who were recently exposed and thus prevent additional exposures. More efficient laboratory methods are being developed that will allow identification of suspected bacteria and viruses within hours. The Hygienic Laboratory will evaluate these methods as soon as they are available, Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist was one of the primary architects of the laboratory network and has experience in preparing for the threat of bioterrorism. During the Persian Gulf War, she led a Veterans Affairs group of microbiologists in developing a plan to address biological or chemical weapons issues.

On Oct. 21, the Hygienic Laboratory and the Iowa Department of Public Health will conduct the first in a series of workshops dealing with the potential impact of bioterrorism on the medical community and the Iowa population. Designed for laboratory personnel, physicians, nurses and other health care professionals, the workshops will address national contingency plans, the role of emergency responders in Iowa, biological agents targeted for use by terrorists and referral resources for hospital emergency room and laboratory staff. The workshops will be transmitted over the Iowa Communications Network.

For more information on the workshops, contact the UI Hygienic Laboratory at (319) 335-4500.