Campus prepares for wartime threats

Dave Shinall

As the threat of war with Iraq looms amid the United States’ 13-month war on terrorism, Western is preparing for potential nuclear and biological threats.

Campus Police Chief Robert Deane plans on sending officers to a former nuclear test site in Nevada where they will learn how to deal with nuclear incidents. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Responder Operations course, which Deane attended last month, is funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

“I want to go on the pretense that we need to know, but hopefully it will never happen, and we’ll never have to really deal with it,” Deane said.

How many officers attend will depend on how long the federal government funds the program, he said. He intends for key officers to return and train subordinates.

Western’s 23 uniformed officers need to be prepared to respond to any emergency, no matter how remote its likelihood, Deane said.

“Police are normally the first people at an incident, regardless of what type it is,” Dean said. “If they don’t know the potential problems, the potential hazards of that incident, then they don’t know how to act and they don’t know how to instruct others in what to do.”

Like campus police, WKU Health Services is also planning and outlining ways to combat a nuclear or terrorist attack.

Western, other state universities and community colleges across Kentucky could be turned into treatment and quarantine sites in the case of a smallpox attack, said Patti Banahan, a registered nurse with WKU Health Services.

“There have been no known cases in the world since 1977, and active immunization stopped in 1980,” Banahan said. “The only way that we would have smallpox now would be by deliberate reintroduction.”

A smallpox vaccine is not yet available, and local plans for mass, voluntary inoculations and countering a smallpox outbreak are still being worked out.

Banahan said she never thought much about bioterrorism until last semester’s anthrax scares. She thought even more about it after attending a seminar on how college health professionals would identify, isolate and treat bioterror victims.

“They have a plan already in place,” Banahan said. “They would probably use dormitories for the people who were sick, because at some point, if this became an outbreak, we would need more beds than the hospitals have here in town.”

Isolating casualties away from a hospital would prevent exposing patients already there. Western could become a major clearinghouse for vaccinations, quarantine and treatment, Banahan said.

“We want to know that if it does happen that we’re prepared, and that we can do it, and will do it, whatever it takes,” she said.

Combating an outbreak would take a community effort including Western’s health staff.

“This is not something the health department can just do by ourselves,” said Chris Barnett, health promotions coordinator for Barren River District Health Department. “If we have to run clinics 24-7, running 12-hour shifts, we don’t have the nursing capacity to do this.”

Because smallpox was eradicated more than 20 years ago, health care workers might have trouble recognizing it, Western Medical Director Dr. Allen Redden said.

“That is a major concern, which is exactly why the government, a lot of the medical agencies, are doing such a good job of educating doctors and other health care professionals about recognizing it,” Redden said. “It is highly contagious and kills about 20 to 50 percent of those afflicted.”

Early symptoms include high fever, fatigue and body aches. Later, victims break out in puss-filled sores.

People who have not been vaccinated against smallpox need to be immunized within four days after exposure, Redden said.

Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]