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General speaks on military defense

Anna Gelhaus | Friday, October 31, 2003

Civilian medical authorities will need to learn about medical homeland security, according to Brig. Gen. Michael Dunn.

Dunn spoke on the issue at a lecture last night titled, “Medical Homeland Defense: Yesterday’s Demons and Tomorrow’s Threat.” He is the commanding general for the Western Regional Medical Command and the Army’s senior medical expert on chemical and biological defense, as well as a 1968 graduate of Notre Dame.

“Notre Dame has a great reputation among medical circles,” Dunn said. “You couldn’t be in a better place to prepare for a career in medicine.”

Dunn focused on the results of past attacks on medical defense and what needs to be done to prepare the nation for the future. He stressed the importance of learning about the medical issues in order to be prepared for possible attacks.

“We are no longer looking at chemical and biological threats as a war time thing; we are looking at them as day-to-day occurrences,” said Dunn. “His makes us a little apprehensive.”

Dunn was personally involved in such attacks when he was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center, which was one of the locations the received anthrax contaminated letters following Sept. 11. He spoke on the military plans for such attacks, and their defenses against them, but expressed concern over a lack of civilian readiness for such events.

“There is a tendency among health professionals to panic when faced with something they are unfamiliar with,” he said.

Learning about the issues will diminish this fear, he believes.

“You can imagine, if you are running an urban hospital, [an anthrax attack] can really affect things.”

The military has a worldwide database among its hospitals that tracks medical trends and possible disease outbreaks. But this technology is only available for the small population that visits military hospitals, and the vast majority of the world is left without this tool.

Lapses in technology like this, Dunn said, can leave civilians vulnerable.

“I felt very comfortable going into Iran and Iraq,” he said. “I had a chemical suit. I had a mask … antidotes … guys with detectors.”

While the military is able to assist civilians in many instances, such as Olympic events or inaugurations, they are sometimes “off doing the nation’s business,” said Dunn. Therefore, the civilian medical field needs to make changes.

But at the same time, people must be wary of the actions taken to prevent attacks. In reference to discussion about national smallpox vaccinations, Dunn said, “Do you want to be that one in a million who dies from the smallpox vaccine?” He also talked about the vast resources needed to do such work that could be used for other practical problems such as smoking cessation. Personal freedoms would also be lost if quarantining was established.

“This country is not the same as it was before Sept. 11,” said Dunn. “I think the public, medicine and government need to recognize, in a way never seen before. That is something we have to pay attention to.”