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Kansas State University
128 Dole Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506
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Citizens need straight talk on NBAF safety

Nancy and Jerry Jaax

The selection of Manhattan as a finalist for the National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) has generated some misinformation. We are writing because we have considerable first-hand BL-4 experience. Consequently, we feel qualified to add our perspective to some of these concerns.

First and foremost, we strongly believe the NBAF will be a safe and secure facility. The NBAF is being built specifically to address infectious disease threats to our agriculture. The majority of these agents require only BL-2 or BL-3 facilities and many are not pathogenic to humans. This agricultural mission is important to the welfare of the entire nation and is especially vital to our interests here in the Midwest. This is an important distinction between the focus of the NBAF and other new biocontainment facilities that concentrate almost exclusively on human health aspects of diseases.

The inclusion of BL-4 capability in the NBAF has certainly heightened safety concerns. However, BL-4 is necessary for new or emerging agricultural diseases that might have serious human health implications, such as Nipah and Hendra viruses. We worked for 20 years at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute into Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Army's premier infectious disease biocontainment facility in Frederick, Md. Although we know of no probable scenario where the NBAF mission would include ebola, opponents have used graphic descriptions of Ebola Fever symptoms to alarm the community. We are among a relative handful of people who have worked occupationally with ebola in both the laboratory and in the field. Like hundreds of other employees, we returned home daily from the lab confident that our families were not at risk. Tours of the facility were often given to schoolchildren and community members. Our children frequently visited the lab and didn't really think it was noteworthy that their parents sometimes worked in "space suits."

Our son still lives within a mile of USAMRIID and its "deadly BL-4" labs. Some would have you believe that this somehow places his family at increased risk. We strongly dispute that as misguided fear. The synergistic intellectual and economic energy that USAMRIID has provided Frederick County for decades has made it one of the most vibrant and desirable places to live on the entire East Coast. We have no doubt that the NBAF would ultimately have a similar effect in Riley County.

There have been assertions that attracting world-class NBAF staff to Manhattan, with all of the attendant long-term employment opportunities across the work spectrum for Kansans, would somehow be negative. This thinking would imply that Riley County would be better off without Fort Riley or even KSU. Some might subscribe to this idea, but to most, it
defies logic.

A last word about safety: Manhattan is not the only community wanting informed answers about initiatives of this kind. A large BL-4 capable facility is nearing completion in a populous suburb of Boston.

In response to local concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just released a study concluding that building the biocontainment facility there "would neither elevate nor create a public health risk" for the community. That facility, unlike the NBAF, is specifically intended for research on serious human diseases like SARS, plague and ebola. For those looking for answers about safety beyond speculation, this report should help reassure citizens of Kansas about the safety of
the NBAF.

Nancy and Jerry Jaax are graduates of K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine and work at K-State. While serving at USAMRIID, they were key participants in the 1989 Reston Ebola outbreak detailed in Richard Preston's best seller "The Hot Zone," which inspired the 1995 film "Outbreak."


Published in the August 27, 2007 edition of the Manhattan Mercury.