Proper protection can negate bioterror weapons

  • Published
  • By G.W. Pomeroy
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
The Air Force Medical Service's biggest challenge in saving lives and sustaining combat capability after a bioterror attack hinges on rapidly translating complex biological systems data into "operationally significant information," according to the Air Force surgeon general.

"It can take from days to years to plan measures and countermeasures to detect a bioterror attack," Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. told a gathering of medical professionals at the Mayo Clinic on Feb. 26. "But you only have from minutes to days to detect and determine the actual source of such an attack."

Taylor said that advanced diagnostic platforms such as the Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device, or RAPID, are key in detecting and identifying biological warfare and emerging infectious agents in humans and the environment.

He used the anthrax vaccine as a model to illustrate a medical countermeasure that serves to increase survivability.

"By using the anthrax vaccine before exposure to a lethal dosage, and then treating with antibiotics after the attack, the chances of survivability rise to roughly 100 percent," Taylor said.

Taylor told the audience that the mere existence of such tools can serve as a deterrent.

"If the bad guys know you're protected against these agents, they may choose not to use them," Taylor said.

During his presentation, Taylor touched on many facets of the AFMS transformation. He detailed combat lifesaving aspects of the light, lean and mobile medical force, and how joint civilian-military partnerships have enhanced homeland defense.

Taylor provided a dramatic example from Operation Enduring Freedom to illustrate how advancements in combat medicine have helped produce the lowest fatality rate in the history of combat.

He spoke of a soldier in a remote forward location who was impaled during an industrial accident early in OEF. Because a mobile field surgical team was nearby, the soldier had emergency damage control surgery within 25 minutes of his injury.

Within six hours, Taylor said, the soldier underwent further emergency stabilization surgery conducted by a critical care air transport team en route to the hospital at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

Over the next 48 hours, the soldier received additional surgical care by another CCATT en route to Landstuhl Army Medical Center, Germany, and was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"The soldier survived, but without these capabilities he wouldn't have had a chance," Taylor said.

In terms of civilian partnerships Taylor cited the AFMS' Coalition for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Through C-STARS, as it is known, AFMS airmen receive refresher training in shock trauma and critical care techniques.

Because of this association, in July, the AFMS and the University of Maryland Medical Center spearheaded a major disaster response exercise that included more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies.

Taylor also addressed the issue of fatigue management, which has received a lot of media attention lately in large part related to Air Force pilots and the use of "go pills." However, medications are a small part of the fatigue countermeasures program, Taylor said.

"Although pilots have received a lot of attention, we look at a broad scope of people who are vulnerable to fatigue through our Human Performance Sustainment and Enhancement Program," Taylor said.

Taylor said that security forces, command and control workers, maintainers and medics are among those who are vulnerable to fatigue and other stresses that reduce performance.

To maximize the performance of all airmen, the AFMS has developed human performance teams. These teams are comprised of physiologists and physiology technicians who evaluate specific specialties and missions at various locations around the Air Force -- stateside and overseas in forward-deployed locations. As trainers and advisers, they address fatigue countermeasures and performance enhancement issues.

Such an overview of military medicine was not entirely new to the staff at the Mayo Clinic. Many members on staff have served in the military; some served full careers before moving to the prestigious facility.

"General Taylor's presentation really inspired confidence in our technological abilities and the vigor with which these solutions are being brought to bear," said Dr. Greg Poland, vice chairman of research at the Mayo Clinic's department of internal medicine.

Taylor's presentation, "Transformational Challenges and Technologies," was attended by about 200 people in the Siebens Building of the medical complex in southeast Minnesota. The talk also was made available to the facility's 26,000 employees on closed-circuit TV.