Sensors throughout Austin monitoring for bioterrorism agents

Austin skyline (KXAN Photo)
Austin skyline (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Bioterrorism. It’s a threat that many people don’t think about, yet is ever present on the minds of health officials and the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2003, after the anthrax scare at federal buildings, BioWatch was formed. BioWatch is an early warning system that is designed to detect the release of bioterrorism agents. Special sensors are strategically placed in selected cities, such as Austin, to monitor the air.

Dr. Philip Huang with Austin Public Health is the local chair of the BioWatch Program. He says the sensors work like a vacuum sucking in air samples with special filters. The samples are tested every day at a secret lab in Austin.

“It is always working,” says Huang. “We always have staff that are collecting these daily. This is a system we operate to monitor the air 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Being prepared is half the battle.

“In the case of a biological agent, there are no outstanding signs or symptoms an event has occurred,” says Josh Davies, the director of Emergency Services in Travis County. “So it takes longer to sense the presence in the environment. That’s why a system like Biowatch is so critical.”

If the system does detect something, there is an action plan that includes local emergency officials as well as federal officials.

“We have other preparation activities where going through those exercises of what would we do to get every person in our community within 48 hours life saving antibiotics,” says Huang.

According to a 2014 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the BioWatch Program tested everything from bacillus anthracis (anthrax) to ricin.

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