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Spring 2002
Confronting the terror within
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That has necessitated a crash course in agents and illnesses that haven't been seen in the United States in decades, if ever. "Before the anthrax outbreak, most physicians had very limited knowledge of these things," says Farhad Melamed '90, an internal-medicine specialist who represents the UCLA Primary Care Network on the task force. Along with educating themselves, the network's providers were encouraged to work with office staff who take patient phone calls, and to educate their patients. "At the height of the scare, people who had a runny nose and cough thought it was anthrax," Melamed says. In December, the task force produced a pamphlet for UCLA physicians to distribute.

For the institution as a whole, the aftermath of September 11 also has led to serious thinking about ways to use computer technology to identify unusual patterns in the cases seen by UCLA providers — statistical blips that might signify a bioterrorist agent is at work. "Obviously if someone is diagnosed with a case of smallpox or anthrax, a whole system of notification starts spinning up to the highest levels of the federal public-health system," says Pegues. "But there might be something lurking more insidiously beneath the surface."

It's an enormous technological and logistic undertaking that local public-health systems are also exploring. "With our size, and with the satellite clinics that we have geographically distributed throughout Los Angeles, we'd like to lead the effort in applying this kind of public-health model," says Pegues.

In responding to any disaster — intentional or not — the ability of the key players on campus to communicate with each other, and with the appropriate responders outside the university, is critical. Operation Topoff, a federal exercise in Denver two years ago that simulated a bioterrorist attack, pointed out the need for a system in which members of the emergency-management and operations team can be easily reached, notes Peter Katona, a UCLA infectious-disease and bioterrorism expert on the task force.

Besides working on ways to ensure that officials can reliably and quickly contact each other, UCLA has paid close attention to other forms of communication. Plans for accommodating a large media contingent have been developed, and medical center spokespeople have been identified. "Good communication includes presenting accurate information in a timely and organized manner," says Katona. "If you look disorganized, that can instill panic."

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