Hackensack Med Center gets grant for mobile bioterror unit
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Hackensack Med Center gets grant for mobile bioterror unit

The Carolina Med1 rapid response unit, used by FEMA, is designed for incidents in which there are mass casualties, but it’s the size of a tractor-trailer. That means it would not be able to maneuver through narrow city streets laden with debris or rush-hour traffic.

This was one of the lessons learned last year from Hurricane Katrina, said Dr. Joseph Feldman, chair of the emergency department at Hackensack University Medical Center, at a press conference Tuesday, called to announce a government grant to develop a new mobile hospital in case of bioterrorism and mass casualty incidents in urban areas. U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman and Sen. Frank Lautenberg presented a check for $3.’ million to the hospital to begin development of the new unit, which hospital officials said would be up and running in six to nine months.

"Can you imagine getting one or two tractor-trailers across the George Washington Bridge during rush hour, in the middle of a catastrophe, with debris and people scattered everywhere?" Rothman asked during the presentation. "It would be virtually impossible, making this life-saving system unavailable to help our people in times of dire need."

The prototype, which will be made up of three vehicles that can be used separately or as one unit, will be able to address problems found in any disaster, said Feldman.

Development will take place in three phases. First, the three vehicles will be built. After that, a mobile operating theater will be developed so that procedures can be performed on the scene. Lastly, a disaster institute will be created to train doctors and technicians to use the new tools.

The unit will be able to respond to all known biotoxins, Feldman told The Jewish Standard. Its coverage area will include North Jersey and the New York metropolitan area, but it could go "anywhere a road could take us," Feldman said, noting that it could also be deployed in advance to areas where casualties would be expected.

Rothman, a member of the House appropriations committee, and Lautenberg, a member of the Senate appropriations committee, said at the press conference that they were proud to secure the funding for the project.

"When there’s an emergency, time is everything. We’ve got to get critical care to the scene quickly and be equipped to provide an array of services on-site. In the event of another disaster, equipment like this mobile surgical unit can provide those services and reduce loss of life," Lautenberg said.

The three pieces of the mobile unit can either fit together as a full-service hospital or operate independently in multiple areas. The first part will be a mobile trauma unit. The second unit will hold lab equipment to immediately analyze powders and detect biological agents. The final part will be a mobile operating room. Each vehicle will also have equipment to allow it to communicate with the hospital. The vehicles will be operated by the hospital’s pre-existing disaster-preparedness team of approximately 80 doctors, nurses, and technicians.

Once operational, the unit "would give eyes and ears to hospitals receiving patients" during a disaster, Feldman said.

The importance of bioterrorism preparedness has been realized since September ‘001, said Leonard Cole in a telephone interview Wednesday. Cole, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of the book "The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story," said that expenditures for bio-defense have increased tenfold since the anthrax scare that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government discovered that the Kremlin had employed 60,000 scientists and technicians to develop biological organisms for military use. Through the 1990s, Cole said, the threat of bioterrorism was understood but considered to be theoretical, since there had never been a large-scale biological attack in the United States. But since the anthrax scare, the government has increased funding, especially before the start of the ‘003 war in Iraq.

Americans must understand there isn’t 100-percent protection against a biological agent, Cole said. But there is "no doubt U.S. citizens are better protected against a deliberate bioattack than they were before ‘001."

"In the event of an attack, having the capability to treat patients rapidly would be extremely important," he said. "If these mobile units move us in this direction, this must be considered an important step forward."

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