Yale Offers Course on Preparing for Bioterrorism and other Disasters

Yale, for the first time, is offering a course this semester on preparing for bioterrorism and other disasters, a new offering requested by students following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“After the attack on September 11, 2001, I inserted a lecture about disaster response into the course on injury control,” said Linda Degutis, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, as well as associate professor of surgery and emergency medicine and associate clinical professor in the School of Nursing. “Then there was a student request for disaster planning and responses.”

The course, “The Public Health Management of Disasters,” is open to all students and is offered within the master’s in public health program. The course looks at preparedness and planning for a range of disasters, among them bioterrorism and weather-related disasters.

The course focuses on what someone who is planning a response, or responding to a disaster, would have to consider, such as surveillance for disease or injuries; gauging the severity of the disease or injury; and coordination of services, both immediately and over the long term. There also is instruction about assessing the psychosocial impact of a disaster, collaborating between multiple agencies and professions, and deciding who is in command.

The class is fully enrolled at 35 students and Degutis said it will be offered every year. Next semester she and the co-director of the course, David Cone, associate professor of surgery and emergency medicine, will offer a seminar series that will bring in local, regional and national experts on bioterrorism and disaster preparedness.

Degutis said responses to bioterrorism differ from other disasters because a key concern is exposure and containing the exposure, for example, to smallpox. “If someone develops a rash or fever or other symptoms of smallpox, they might go to their physicians’ office, or they might go to the hospital. We have different responses for each scenario,” she said.

The advantage of being prepared for a disaster, she said, is having a system in place that works day to day with people who know each other. “We will already have the relationships, have defined who does what, and have decided who is in charge,” Degutis said.

The attack on the World Trade Center towers was unforeseen, as was the degree of devastation and loss of life, yet the system in place worked, she said. “There were a lot of people who were ready to do what needed to be done,” she said. “Some of those people were not able to serve in those capacities because so few people survived.”

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