Emergency responders in St. Louis are among the first to receive the anthrax vaccine as part of a federal program to inoculate local personnel.
Health officials from Washington University and local health departments have begun giving the vaccine to first responders who volunteer as part of a federal program testing the distribution of the shots to emergency personnel.
Anthrax is a disease contracted when a person consumes or inhales deadly spores of anthrax bacteria. When modified to a powdered form in a lab, anthrax can be distributed through the air by terrorists.
Emergency responders such as firefighters, emergency room workers and police are especially are at risk of contracting the illness in the event of a bioterrorism attack.
“We look at what happens in the scenarios that have occurred when anthrax has been released, and we note there are certain types of folks that respond to the 911 calls,” said Thomas Zink, senior medical adviser to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. “They’re put into that situation not really knowing where the safe zone ends and the hot zone begins.”
In 2001, five people died and 17 people were sickened on the East Coast when a terrorist sent powdered anthrax through the mail. In that event, even first responders wearing hazmat suits produced anthrax antibodies, which indicates they were put at risk, Zink said.
In 2016, Congress voted to launch a pilot program in two cities that would use vaccines stockpiled by the federal government to inoculate first responders. The Department of Homeland Security selected St. Louis and northern Mississippi as locations for the programs.
The vaccines come from the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal government repository for antidotes, vaccines and other emergency medical supplies.
Public health officials already know the anthrax vaccine is effective, said Stacey House, director of the Emergency Care Research Core at Washington University. But more research is needed on how to distribute it to local communities.
“We’re trying to figure out how do you actually implement this type of program in the emergency personnel community,” said House, one of the managers of the St. Louis program.
If the two-year pilot is a success, the vaccination program could be implemented in cities across the country.
“In St. Louis city and St. Louis County alone, we have 65 different groups we’re working with. They’re all very busy, working variable shifts,” she said. “How do you actually get the vaccines and education to the right people at the right time?”
Managers of the program have started visiting firehouses and police stations to educate first responders on the dangers of anthrax and how the vaccine works. After the presentations, volunteers can choose to receive the vaccine, House said.
Emergency responders often ask during these sessions if the shots are safe, House said. The vaccine doesn’t contain any anthrax bacteria, and the shot has minimal side effects.
“I was actually the first person to get the vaccine in the program,” she said.
There is no imminent threat of anthrax bioterrorism in St. Louis, House said. The Department of Homeland Security chose St. Louis and the other city, Oxford, Mississippi, because they submitted strong grant applications.
But it is important to inoculate first responders before the vaccines expire, Zink said.
Anthrax vaccines have a shelf life of only a few years. After that, they are discarded. The program is a way to use the vaccines in the stockpile and mitigate a potential threat.
“The notion is, 'Let’s get ahead of it, and let’s do it as soon as we can with the doses of the vaccines that would normally be destroyed because they had run out of shelf life,'” Zink said.
Vaccines don’t work immediately, he said. Anthrax vaccines require multiple doses. If someone takes it for the first time after a terrorist attack, it might not kick in in time.
“The worst time to give a vaccine is when it has to work within 10 days,” Zink said.
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