WEST CHESTER - The county commissioners are expected to approve a $745,677 bio-terrorism grant at their Tuesday meeting.

The federal grant, which is being renewed for the county Health Department, will be used primarily in three areas - preparedness planning and readiness assessment, surveillance and epidemiology capacity and risk communications and health information.

"The emphasis is going to be on ... working with other agencies," said John Maher, county Health Department director.

These agencies range from local hospitals to state laboratories to federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Environmental Protection.

"With these various grants, we are doing more collaboration, communication coordination than ever before," said Maher.

The county has been involved in bio-terrorism planning since the spring of 1999.

While a bio-terrorism event is more likely to occur in a place such as Philadelphia, New York City or Washington, D.C., said Maher, the county is not immune from threats.

An event could occur in Center City, he said, and "then people would be coming back out to their homes, back to the suburbs."

These people, as well as others who might flee to Chester County for safety, he said, could bring the aftermath of bio-terrorist acts, such as anthrax powder on their clothes, with them.

"There are so many different scenarios," said Maher.

He cited the recent rail bombings in Madrid, Spain, as an example that potential targets exist everywhere.

The health department will coordinate planning efforts with other agencies to establish leadership roles and a chain of command in the event of a bio-terrorism act.

"The planning and preparedness actually improve out efficiency for the day-to-day operations," said Maher.

Improved surveillance capacity will include the rapid identification of reported disease cases to determine the severity of the illness.

"Traditionally, we get food-borne outbreaks," said Maher, such as the recent outbreak of the Norwalk virus at West Chester University.

In November, said Maher, the state made electronic reporting of disease outbreaks mandatory. This will enable the health department to identify clusters of an outbreak and the reasons for the occurrence more readily.

The agencies also will work with local veterinarians to train them to flag outbreaks of bio-terrorist diseases in farm animals. In addition, they can collaborate to determine if the outbreak of an illness warrants a quarantine or vaccinations.

Communication also is an important element of bio-terrorism responses, said Maher.

"When something happens, the most frightening thing to the public is not knowing what's going on," he said.

Part of the grant money also will fund training for someone to disseminate accurate information in a levelheaded manner. "We'll try to have a single voice with a unified message," Maher said.

The various agencies can consolidate efforts to collect and analyze data and coordinate public health needs as well.

Maher also encouraged citizens to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activities to the proper authorities.

"The citizenry have to keep their eyes open... There are people that hate us simply for what we are and who we are," he said. "In the hands of a dedicated terrorist, anything can be a weapon."

Although the county is better prepared for bio-terrorism now than it was two years ago, he said, improvements still can be made.

Maher had one final comment about bio-terrorism.

"Pray that it doesn't happen," he said.

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