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Antidote at the ready for attack

The mail arrived routinely at U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's Brooksville district office one Friday morning in March. Just as a staffer began to open a manilla envelope filled with hate mail, she noticed a strange odor wafting from a box.

Soon afterward, an army of police officers and hazardous materials workers cordoned off the area and secured the suspicious packages.

The box contained bones _ a ploy by a German magazine to protest Republican Brown-Waite's proposal to exhume remains of American servicemen buried in France and Belgium in retaliation for those countries' opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Capitol Hill police have forwarded the investigation to the FBI.

No one was hurt, and the box's contents seemed to be nothing more than a bad joke. But Hernando County officials weren't laughing.

If the box had contained sarin, a nerve agent used in chemical attacks, county officials would have been defenseless. Not any more. They have an antidote. It comes in a small package labeled Mark I Nerve Agent Antidote Kit.

"It's just a precaution," said Mark Tobert, preparedness and response coordinator for Hernando County Emergency Management. "With heightened terrorist alerts, we just wanted another tool to have. You never know what could happen."

Since April, the county's emergency medical personnel and first reponders have been equipped with drugs to treat nerve agent exposure during a terrorist attack. The county health department received the kits earlier this year under a free Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program to promote domestic preparedness.

"We were not as prepared for Sept. 11. We are prepared now," said Tobert, adding that the program is a small part of the county's preparedness planning. "I am not saying that we are where we need to be. We are going to be in better shape one year from now."

Although the antidote can ward off symptoms related to nerve gas exposure, Tobert said that the small supply of drugs is not meant to counteract the effects of a mass-casuality incident, during which the number of fatalities overwhelms the resources of local medical examiners.

Instead, the kits will be primarily used to protect those who respond to disasters first. Ambulances and first reponders were outfitted with four kits each.

The kits are similar to the ones used by the U.S military since World War II. The antidote is delivered in an auto-injector that looks like a syringe.

If a victim has the symptoms and is believed to be exposed to a nerve agent, the trained emergency personnel will administer the drugs. Symptoms include a runny nose, difficulty breathing, vomiting, nausea, blurred vision and headaches.

If a trained medic arrives on the scene of a nerve attack, he must quickly decide whether the victim meets the criteria to administer the antidote. Once that has been established, he will remove the cap and jab the concealed needle containing a dose of atropine into the victim's outer thigh. Then, the second dose of pralidoxime (Protopam, 2-pamchloride) is injected. If delivered promptly, the combination can ward off the deadly and debilitating effects of agents, such as sarin, soman, VX and GF.

"This is one more step to be prepared for the many things that could happen," said Nina Mattei, the public health preparedness planner for Hernando County Health Department.

Officials are not saying how many kits are available or where the county's supply is stashed in case of a nerve gas emergency.

Although the likelihood of such an attack is slim in Hernando County, it's best to be prepared, Tobert said.

"People should be more concerned with the force of a hurricane hitting their house in Hernando County than a terrorist attack. We are vulnerable to a number of other things."

_ Duane Bourne covers law enforcement and emergency services in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbournesptimes.com.

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