Neutralizing a Nuclear Nightmare -- Online

An explosion rocks a local high school. Minutes later, casualties flood into a hospital emergency room.

Only after the first wave of wounded arrive is the hospital informed that the explosion was a result of a dirty bomb -- a weapon designed to scatter radioactive material throughout its blast radius.

And one by one, weaknesses in the system take their toll on emergency efforts.

Hospital administrators call their local radiation safety officer, but he is on vacation and can't be reached.

Health workers search for but cannot locate radiation meters that could help them determine which patients suffered the highest degree of contamination.

Confusion builds as medical professionals wonder about the appropriate way to deal with so many patients as radioactive patients lay waiting for appropriate treatment, possibly contaminating other patients and health professionals.

At the climax of the disaster, the emergency bays of the hospital close down. The system of medical treatment grinds to a halt. All that remains now is a slim hope that casualties and contamination can somehow be kept to a minimum.

Fortunately, the above was just a drill -- one of many conducted in communities across the country since the 9/11 attacks.

But the scenario was frighteningly realistic. And the ways in which the situation was mishandled exposed the weak spots in the medical system of one county when it came to a possible radiological disaster.

"They flubbed it terribly," says Dr. John Moulder, professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Moulder, who did not reveal the location of the scenario described above, says the missteps in the response could have happened anywhere else in the country.

It is a nightmarish scenario. But federal officials hope a new online tool could help health professionals cope with such an episode more effectively.

Preparing for Impending Disaster

The words "dirty bomb" have been on the lips of health and law enforcement officials since the terrorist attacks of 2001. But even now, a surefire solution for dealing with such a catastrophe has been elusive.

Moulder was part of the team that developed a new resource -- a Web site conceived by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- that provides a readily accessible plan of action.

"The need for this resource was first discussed within a couple of months of 9/11," Moulder says. "It has taken this long to develop because it is a federal document."

The need for such a resource is clear, he says.

"Most medical professionals do not know how to deal with radiation injuries," Moulder says. "And since they will probably never see one, they have little incentive to spend days learning the material."

Other health experts in the field of radiation treatment say the Web site, which includes detailed guidelines for triage and treatment of patients, is a welcome resource.

"I must admit I am very impressed by this Web site," says Dr. Jack Little, professor of radiobiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"In the best of all possible worlds, one would never need to consult it. However, having it there and widely available on the Internet is, to my mind, a great service."

But before the algorithms and guidelines of the site can be applied, health professionals must first be familiar with the site. If they are not, the Web site may not be the first stop for useful information.

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