What is the health department doing to protect the public from bioterrorism?

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has implemented an enhanced disease surveillance system to rapidly identify any unusual disease events that may be occurring in the state. The VDH is also working closely with hospitals, physicians, other medical providers and organizations across the state to coordinate response efforts. In case of an attack, pertinent health information would be provided to the public via mass media.

The Virginia Department of Health has created the Division of Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response. The office provides the 35 public health district offices in the state with information related to preparedness and response to manmade and natural disasters, including all forms of terrorism. In addition, the office provides information to hospitals, emergency departments and physicians.

Adding to the state's readiness, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has awarded bioterrorism preparedness grants to Virginia since 1999. The CDC grants have been provided to the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratories to enhance capacity to identify agents that could be used in a bioterrorism event and to the state health department to increase capability to conduct surveillance and notification.

During the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Virginia Department of Health immediately notified local health departments and hospitals in the state of a heightened alert status and asked them to promptly report any unusual diseases or illnesses. Certain types of diseases could be reported to the Virginia Department of Health within hours. In addition, health department staff sometimes plays an even more active role by going into hospitals in target areas to step up surveillance. Response plans could be activated based upon the type of illness that might be discovered.

The health department system is capable of video conferencing or broadcasting public health notifications and training independently through the statewide Health Alert Network. This rapid communications system was developed in cooperation with CDC as part of its national Health Alert Network.