Unit for Infectious, Lethal Diseases Opens

The nation's largest medical unit for victims of highly lethal infectious diseases such as smallpox, anthrax (search) and the plague opened in Nebraska on Monday.

The Nebraska Medical Center's (search) 10-bed containment wing has a separate ventilation system, alarms to indicate escaping air, a sterilizer for items leaving the wing and a shower for its volunteer staff to make sure contagious diseases are kept inside.

There are only two other high-level biocontainment facilities in the country — a two-bed suite run by the Army's infectious diseases institute at Fort Detrick, Md., and the Centers for Disease Control (search) and Prevention's two-bed unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

"We hope we never have to use it, but if we do need to use it, it's here," said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding.

The wing was partly funded by federal Homeland Security money and can accept infected patients from other states.

It cost less than $1 million to construct, and training a staff cost an additional $200,000, said Patricia Lenaghan, the wing's nurse coordinator.