Risk of bioterrorism is remote, but Wallowa County is planning defense

The Wallowa County Health Department will receive $66,871 in federal funding to develop a bioterrism plan and upgrade infectious disease identification and response capacities. Photo by Kim Lamb

Wallowa County is located in one of the more isolated corners of the United States and may seem somewhat protected from a direct terrorist attack in the current war being waged against terrorism throughout the world.

However, because even residents of Wallowa County travel the globe and are daily hosts to guests from everywhere, there is one front in which this corner of America is almost as vulnerable as Grand Central Station: bioterrorism.

In fact, the last major case - before the post-9-11 anthrax attack - of what could be considered bioterrorism in the United State occurred in Oregon. The year was 1984 when 388 cases of salmonella were confirmed, the victims of the Rajneeshees based in the central Oregon community of Antelope. In an attempt to influence the outcome of an election, the religious cult obtained a salmonella culture from a biological supply house, grew it in their own laboratory and subsequently contaminated salad bars in The Dalles.

In recent weeks, the introduction of the smallpox virus into a vulnerable world population by terrorists has been discussed as a real threat.

Because the spread of biological agents, either by terrorism or national causes, knows no boundaries, a small but significant amount of the $1.1 billion worth of federal funding nationwide that is being directed toward strengthening public health nationwide through bioterrorism planning will be finding its way to Wallowa County.

Out of $14.1 million in new federal planning money earmarked for Oregon through the Department of Human Services, $6.5 million will be divided among county health departments to develop comprehensive bioterrorism and public health plans and to upgrade infectious disease identification and response capacities. The Wallowa County Health Department will receive $66,871.

In addition to amounts ranging from $535,268 for the health department of Multnomah county and $63,670 each for Gilliam, Sherman and Wheeler counties, $366,000 of the public health department funds will go to implement a Health Alert Network for electronic communication with all counties.

"We haven't had time yet to work up a plan," said Wallowa County Health Department director Renita DeVore last week, while she was still immersed in flu immunization clinics. She said that she would be working with county emergency manager Matt Marmor to work out a plan on how the funds should be spent.

"Little old Wallowa County has to be just as prepared as New York City," said Marmor about the need for bioterrorism planning. He noted that the result of the extra funding to deal with illnesses that could be spread through biocrime, will be to also benefit the county with all infectious diseases, such as dealing with an outbreak of food poisoning.

Marmor said the money allocated to Wallowa County cannot be used to subsidize existing operations, but could be used, for example, to either contract out or hire someone to develop a plan, and for such things as funding workshops to educate local health workers on different aspects of bioterrorism and infectious disease.

"We're still in the discussing stage," said Marmor.

Oregon DHS will use its new funds, which comes from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, to accomplish work in five areas, according to state officials. In addition to improving public health preparedness and bioterrorism response procedures, the department hopes to enhance communicable disease identification and investigation capabilities, improve communications capacity, assure the state public health laboratory has the ability to identify any agent likely to be used in a bioterrorism attack, and provide training to county health departments.

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