Medical schools are bolstering their curriculums to help the nation's future doctors handle the threat of bioterrorism, according to health care educators.
"The biggest impact that this year's events have had is that all of a sudden this is much more immediate for the students," said Dr. Gordon Churchward, associate professor of microbiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Emory and other schools, along with the teaching hospitals affiliated with them, are incorporating bioterror training into existing classes, as well as holding symposiums and lectures on the variety of topics under the bioterror umbrella.
Thanks to its proximity to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also located in Atlanta, Emory was able to invite a specialist to lecture on the systems set up to respond to bioterrorist attacks. The session "was very well attended and appreciated by the students," Churchward said.
Frank Herlong, dean for student affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, among the country's top programs, said his school has also added material about bioterrorism to the curriculum.
"There are now sections that deal with infectious agents — anthrax, smallpox — that might be used as bioterrorism," he said. "While last year they were arcane issues, and wouldn't really be thoroughly covered, now they are."
How the topics are covered has also changed. "Smallpox was previously mentioned as a victory of modern medicine ... but now we are reintroducing the disease, it is now being looked at in a more immediate sense," Herlong added.
But are medical students ready and willing to learn more than what's already crammed on their very busy academic schedules?
Ellie Morse, a medical student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said her school is doing a good job filling in the gaps of the bioterrorism education already provided. She concedes her workload has been an issue.
"Since Sept. 11, we've had ample opportunity to sit in on lectures and grand rounds about anthrax at the hospital ... I wasn't able to attend though, my schedule is already so jam-packed."
Despite their hectic schedules, Churchward said students are responding more seriously to the bioterrorist threat.
"They understand they may be faced with an infected patient and need to know what they would do. They are a very smart bunch of responsible people and something like this has really grabbed their attention — they're going to take it seriously.
"They are much more willing to listen and learn about the historical aspects of bioterrorism, like the British giving the Indians smallpox-infected blankets," he said. "There's also a long history of bio-crimes in this country."
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which represents 400 major teaching hospitals and 125 medical schools, on Nov. 1 unveiled a multi-faceted "First Contact, First Response" plan to help educate and prepare the nation's doctors for the bioterrorist threat. The initiative focuses on the need for information, resources and educational experiences to prepare medical students and residents to deal with the current and possible future terrorism victims.
A coalition of health education organizations met with the AAMC on Wednesday to develop resources for those likely to be the first to treat victims of any bioterrorist attack.
Edgar Charles, a resident at New York University Hospitals, said he hoped the initiative would also help draw attention to a system he believes is poorly funded.
"The events of the last couple of months have highlighted the importance of an effective public health system that monitors both emerging and established infectious diseases," he said. "In the U.S., these fields have been under-funded over the past quarter century, under the misguided assumptions that infectious diseases were stable and had been 'contained.'"