Emergency departments around the country function as our nation's health-care safety net. We see patients with emergencies and injuries, take care of our nation's uninsured as well as those insured patients who can't see their own doctors in a timely manner or can't wait the weeks or months to get into a specialist. But did you know that emergency medicine is also an integral part to our homeland and national security?
A bipartisan congressional commission to prevent weapons of mass destruction found that it is not nuclear but biologic weapons that are the greatest terrorist threat we have today. A key component to keep Americans safe from this threat involves our emergency medical services and public health systems. Both the detection and response to biologic weapons will begin and end in your local emergency department.
With a biologic attack there mostly likely will not be an immediate impact because infectious agents have an incubation period so there is often a delay between exposure and illness. These weapons are not usually released in a "bomb" which would destroy the bacteria, viruses and protein toxins from the heat instead the release would be more insidious, resembling a natural outbreak.
Emergency physicians are trained to recognize illness patterns or syndromes that give diagnostic clues as to unusual infectious disease outbreaks. Clues might be that patients with these symptoms might all come in within a similar time frame or perhaps from the same geographic area or from the same event. Once these red flags are raised ER doctors then will report these unusual clusters to their local and state health departments which would begin to set in motion a series of events, such as release of stockpiled antibiotics, vaccines, anti-toxin and necessary medical equipment. As well as coordinate efforts with local, state and federal law enforcement authorities and emergency management agencies.