Medical School to teach students how to respond to bioterrorism

Mindy Hagen

Northwestern Medical School administrators said they are looking to expand the school’s infectious-diseases curriculum for first- and second-year students in response to the recent outbreak of anthrax cases, though their current focus remains on educating faculty and residents about bioterrorism treatments.

NU will follow a new plan put forth by the Association of American Medical Colleges to help prepare the nation’s physician workforce to respond to bioterrorism. The initiative, called “First Contact, First Response,” brings experts together to advise schools on adding curriculum content.

AAMC President Jordan Cohen said during a Nov. 1 press conference that the health care community needs to find new ways to collaborate during a time of uncertainty about bioterrorism.

“There is more we need to do to become as well-prepared to deal with terrorist attacks caused by biological agents or chemical and radiation exposure (as possible),” Cohen said.

NU’s Medical School administrators, currently concentrating on discussing bioterrorism information with practicing faculty and residents, said they expect curriculum for beginning students to change significantly before next year.

“I’m sure there will be substantive changes in the way we present the range of infectious diseases,” said Raymond Curry, the school’s executive associate dean for education. “Smallpox and anthrax will be back on the best-seller list. (Anthrax) won’t be a strange disease hidden in the back of a textbook anymore.”

John Thomas, dean of educational programs, envisions the scientific and ethical issues of bioterrorism being taught in a discussion setting.

“Like all medical schools, we are looking for the best way to do what we need to academically to prepare our students in the most realistic way,” Thomas said. “The students are asking a lot of questions about this. It’s not just one of a myriad of topics anymore.”

Thomas said some aspects of bioterrorism, such as gases that affect the nervous system and diseases that are easily spread, have always been covered in beginning classes. Second-year medical student Melissa Cercone said she recently learned about anthrax during a lecture on different forms of bacteria.

“They didn’t present it any differently,” Cercone said. “They talked a little about bacteria-based diseases and when we studied antibiotics, they mentioned some of the drugs that are currently in the news as possible treatments.”

Administrators currently are working to educate health care workers on treatment issues. Curry said Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has generated and distributed the latest information about bioterrorism to physicians.

The hospital sponsored lectures, presentations and video updates about bioterrorism and held sessions in which experts answered questions from physicians and residents. Curry said the medical community has changed its approach to infectious diseases since the last recorded pre-Sept. 11 case of anthrax in the 1970s.

“We are starting to redefine questions of prognosis,” he said. “We had been thinking most cases of anthrax inhalation would be fatal, but now it appears we can rescue some people who have been gravely ill with modern intensive-care support methods.

“We are giving a combination of updates on new data along with what we already knew about anthrax and how we could identify it.”

Third-year medical student Zachary Batcho, who works in a medical rotation at the hospital, said he appreciates being targeted by the lectures.

“We are the ones out there dealing with the possible threats,” Batcho said.