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Guidelines for ground zero illnesses released

/ Source: The Associated Press

New York City health officials issued long-awaited guidelines Thursday to help doctors detect and treat 9/11-related illnesses — medical advice considered crucial for hundreds of ground zero workers now scattered across the United States.

The agency had previously offered instructions for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and mental illness resulting from Sept. 11 experiences. But health experts, advocates and politicians complained the city had shelved instructions on how to treat the physical ailments of Sept. 11.

Since the 2001 terror attacks, thousands of firefighters, police officers, construction workers and volunteers who toiled at ground zero have been screened for a host of medical ailments, including severe lung disease and gastrointestinal problems.

“Five years after the World Trade Center attacks, many New Yorkers have disaster-associated physical and mental health conditions,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden.

Frieden called the guidelines “an important document to help doctors better recognize and treat these illnesses.”

The guidelines could be vital in getting proper treatment for ground zero workers who have either relocated, or who came from elsewhere and must rely on doctors in other states who are unfamiliar with ground zero symptoms and the most effective treatments.

The Associated Press reported last week that more than 600 ground zero workers in 34 states have received medical screening for their exposure to toxic ground zero dust.

The guidelines suggest particular questions to ask, tests to give and ways to treat the 9/11 patients.

They also carry a specific warning about tobacco.

“The risk and severity of many WTC-related diseases are heightened by tobacco use. Exposure to secondhand smoke may also exacerbate WTC-related diseases,” the guidelines state. “All WTC-exposed people and their family members who use tobacco should be advised to quit, and all who attempt to quit should be provided with medications to help them quit.”

The medical guidelines, also known as a protocol, will be mailed to all doctors in New York and distributed elsewhere by the federal government.

Manhattan Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney welcomed the move.

“It’s about time,” said Maloney. “Some might ask why it took so long to get them out or why the city did not do this sooner.”

In New York, the city-run World Trade Center Health Registry is tracking the long-term health effects of 71,000 people, including those who lived or worked in lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks and the months of clean-up.

Mount Sinai Medical Center is preparing a major study of thousands of ground zero workers, to be released days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

Kathy Kirkland of the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, which administers a nationwide screening program for ground zero workers, said before the release that many doctors would not know what kind of lung test to give such patients or be able to connect an intestinal problem to Sept. 11 exposure.

A House committee plans to hold a hearing on Sept. 11 health issues next week.