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A public health official working in San Francisco faces a tough decision. Several hospitals have just reported possible Anthrax-related deaths to her office. Her dilemma: Should she distribute the antibiotic Cipro evenly to clinics and hospitals throughout the Bay area or only to hospitals reporting cases?

She chooses the latter. The Cipro arrives at the same time as the lab results: positive for Anthrax. Four thousand people die. If she had distributed the drug evenly, instead of to specific areas, that number would have been closer to 5,000. Had she waited to get the lab results before acting, the toll could have easily reached 10,000.

Thankfully, the circumstances above only occurred onscreen at the Weapons of Mass Destruction Decision Analysis Center at the Sandia National Laboratories, a national security research and development organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy in Livermore, CA. The Analysis Center-a small theater with multiple screens-provides a means for individuals who would play a decision-making role in the event of a real emergency to rehearse those decisions in real time in what feels like an extravagant, video-game.

“It really is just like a networked game,” says Michael Johnson, head of software development at the Livermore facility. Think SimCity, but with fewer graphics and body counts instead of landscaping. The Center, which opened for presentations and beta testing this past summer, serves as a training camp for decision makers. Ten years of medical data from the state of California and a population model of the Bay area provide data for its simulations. Officials hope to soon make the software available to agencies throughout the country who can tailor it to their region.

Unlike many current antiterrorism initiatives, the Analysis Center went into development before last year’s terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. “We were concerned, even before 9/11, that the need for such training wasn’t being adequately addressed,” says Howard Hirano, manager of advanced technology at Sandia. As a result, a team at Sandia began developing the idea for the Center in the spring of 2001. “The idea was to set up a center to focus on various kinds of weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks-chemical, biological, or radiological. There was a lot of work going on in various communities addressing this, but nothing on this level.”

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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