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FBI-CDC workshop focuses on bioterrorism

Anthrax check

The workshop focused on how local police and government and academic public health experts would work together to address a possible act of bioterrorism, such as this inspection of mail for anthrax at an undisclosed postal facility in November 2001. Photo: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Lynnita M. Cotten

By SARA R. SALDI

Published August 14, 2014

“Being prepared to respond to a potential bioterrorist event from various perspectives, including public health, is critical to the safety of our community.”
Jean Wactawski-Wende, interim dean
School of Public Health and Health Professions

When it comes to dealing with bioterrorism, it is essential that agencies like the police, county health officials and academic public health experts work together and communicate clearly.

That was one of the key messages delivered last week when more than 75 students, faculty, law enforcement, health officials and epidemiologists participated in a staged bioterrorism event at a UB-hosted, two-day workshop presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The “Regional Joint Criminal and Epidemiological Investigations Workshop” (Crim-Epi) took place Aug. 6 and Aug. 7 on the South Campus and was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences, the Office of the Vice President for University Life and Services, the School of Public Health and Health Professions (SPHHP), and the FBI’s Buffalo Field Office.

The main purpose of the days’ activities was to bring together professionals from a variety of backgrounds to learn techniques and protocols for collaborative engagement in emergency preparedness and epidemiological investigations related to bioterrorism.

Michael Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the UB medical school, opened the proceedings with a welcome and expressed his thanks to all taking part in the workshop.

“This symposium will allow us to develop roles, skills and expertise should such an event take place,” said Cain. “Through this workshop, we will use case studies and incorporate the precepts of interprofessional education (IPE) as we bring together our colleagues in community health, law enforcement and the faculty and students at UB.”

Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, said health and law enforcement officials must be prepared for the unknown and the unexpected.

“This workshop is critical to building trust among agencies,” she said.

UB was chosen, according to Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge, FBI Buffalo, because FBI headquarters’ WMD Division has a dedicated interest in solidifying a national, academia-based footprint.

And UB was appealing, said Boetig, because of its expertise in epidemiology and public health. The FBI became aware of this after the Buffalo WMD coordinator recently gave a presentation at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“The WMD coordinator was confident that the FBI could integrate with UB’s established public health programming,” said Boetig. “So this particular opportunity was the perfect fit on both local and national programming levels.”

The FBI strives to hold six Crim-Epi Workshops per year.

Boetig said the FBI’s objectives focus on identifying and establishing critical roles, responsibilities and authorities that responders must address during a biological incident. That includes the role of law enforcement as far as conducting investigations and threat assessments, with a focus on public health epidemiological and medical investigations.

So what is bioterrorism? It was defined at the symposium as the intentional use or threatened use of viruses, bacteria, fungi and toxins from living organisms that produce death or disease in humans, animals and plants.

The presentation began with the CDC and FBI facilitators discussing why bioterrorism would be chosen, what would be the microorganisms most frequently chosen and what would make them attractive to terrorists. There was a short history lesson to demonstrate that bioterror is nothing new; in fact, it can be traced back to the Athenians who poisoned the wells of their enemies with skunk cabbage.

The purpose and instrument of terrorism is fear, feelings of helplessness and the “contagious nature” of fear. The presenters said fear is viral.

Boetig said this program is almost identical in scope and focus to the other workshops that the FBI conducts. 

“We want it like that,” he said. “This way, whether you attend a criminal-epidemiological conference in San Jose, California, or Atlanta, Georgia, or Buffalo, New York, participants receive the same information. The slight difference this week is that more academics are participating compared with past workshops.”

Jean Wactawski-Wende, interim dean of SPHHP, said the School of Public Health and Health Professions was delighted to co-host this workshop for Western New York.

“This is an important educational and training offering that we can help provide to our faculty, trainees and public health agencies from across our region,” Wactowski-Wende said. “Being prepared to respond to a potential bioterrorist event from various perspectives, including public health, is critical to the safety of our community.”