by Ellen Blaine

 This past winter in Salt Lake City affirmed the hopes of people from around the world that a showing of achievement and sportsmanship could cast a shining light on international good will in our post-September 11th world. The security protocols that made it possible stepped out from behind the curtain and on to center stage.

     This year’s meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) took place in the warm May sunshine against the backdrop of the same timeless mountains, and a similar message resounded: it has been and will be our plans and protocols for the worst that make it possible for us to do our best. And that is an evolving process.

     The anthrax bioterrorist attacks made it clear that laboratorians, unlikely as it may have seemed last summer, by this summer are clearly recognized as the strong front line of defense for our public health and well being. But as representatives from the CDC told meeting participants, our public health system needs shoring up.

     In the case of the anthrax attacks, laboratorians’ microbiology skills on the local level proved excellent, but the system was unable to accommodate the specimen surge, the overwhelming number of phone calls, and the unusual requests such as, “Can you culture my keyboard?”

     New methods were developed and validated. New lessons were also learned, and old ones validated. The most important of the old lessons reaffirmed was simply this: know the rules and follow them. In the case of anthrax, this meant exercising interpretive skills based on protocols, and ruling out or referring on. But in the case of other potential agents of bioterrorism, this means knowing to refer — and how. The ASM and the CDC both provide excellent resources. The ASM website features updated information on laboratory security, emergency response and updated shipping and handling requirements. The CDC bioterrorism website offers protocols and resources.

     Through the eyes of a microbiologist, it’s a small world. Bioterrorism is a global threat, but our first line of defense is local, and it could be in your lab.

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Ellen Blaine