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The 411 on 211 

Local social services group hopes a new phone number will help people struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence, suicide and other issues.

Just as 911 is successfully ingrained into the public mind as the number to call in an emergency, New Orleans-area social services groups hope that 211 will soon ring a bell for everyone in need of their assistance.

Designated in 1997 by the FCC as a nation-wide number for social service information and referral, 211 has been locally operational since late June. It was established in southeast Louisiana with VIA LINK, the nonprofit United Way-member agency responsible for coordinating area community support agencies. Efforts are now beginning to promote the number and establish a phone system at VIA LINK capable of handling the expected increase in calls into the toll-free, 24-hour service. Officials hope to reach full-operational status by late January. Callers will be helped with issues ranging from substance abuse to domestic violence, hate crimes to suicide prevention.

Says Marilyn Schraberg, VIA LINK's director of crisis and information services, "211's purpose is to provide the community with easy access to community services. The public deserves to have access to this info, and 211 will provide it. It's one-stop shopping for social services, like what 911 is for emergency services."

Louisiana Public Service Commission gave VIA LINK the license to operate 211in the southeast Louisiana parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Plaquemines. The Lafayette area also has a 211 service, and a license has been granted for Baton Rouge, though operation has not yet begun. The VIA LINK program follows models in other cities and states, such as Atlanta, where a 211 call center assists and estimated 300,000 callers annually.

VIA LINK has for several years operated the similar Cope Line, which receives roughly 70,000 calls a year. The heavy volume on the existing phone system limits counselors to fielding only 80 percent of all calls, says VIA LINK CEO Marguerite Redwine. The new phone system being created for 211, dubbed a Customer Interaction Center (CIC), will allow for the 211 goal of handling 145,000 calls a year. The CIC system will route calls in order of severity to the appropriate counselor, and has the capacity of providing information in 152 languages, with Spanish and Portuguese translators immediately available. Redwine states the CIC system will cost $175,000, with the overall 211 operation requiring a budget of $200,000 a year.

The majority of the expense is staff salaries, Redwine says, adding that the current number of 30 paid employees and unpaid volunteers is expected to climb to 60 -- all of whom must receive 60 hours of training. As it has done in other areas, BellSouth lowered a call tariff to make the program feasible.

VIA LINK receives no government funding for 211, relying on the United Way of Greater New Orleans and St. Charles Parish, as well as UNITY for the Homeless, and various grants, contracts, donations and support from foundations. Redwine says that a limited budget has prevented VIA LINK from advertising the number, and adds that the number will, at least initially, be accessible only to BellSouth phone lines. It would be "extremely difficult" to convince the myriad cellular companies to provide the 211 service for free, Redwine says.

Despite such snags, optimism for 211's potential at VIA LINK runs high. "211 is a powerful use of technology; it's a natural extension of the power of community," Schraberg says. "It's critical the people of New Orleans have this service."-->

If a new bioterrorism threat such as anthrax were to occur, pets might serve as the first line of defense. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned veterinarians across the country to monitor all animals, particularly livestock, for symptoms of anthrax.

There is concern that the future of bioterrorism might involve other ways besides the postal system, including animal infection. "Animal owners who are conscientious will see symptoms -- respiratory difficulty, lethargic, not eating -- right away," says Dr. Thomas Pastor of Audubon Veterinary Hospital. "Of course, those can be symptoms of many other problems, so anthrax would not usually be the first thing to come to mind. But with all this stuff going on now, we would be more likely to consider it."

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, other symptoms to watch out for include fever, excitement followed by depression, uncoordination, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody discharges and convulsions.

Pastor says that a pet infected with anthrax would most likely be treated with Baytril, an antibiotic specifically created for animals. It's

the equivalent of Cipro for humans, and is made by the same company. However, at the end of this month, the Food and Drug Administration might withdraw its approval of Baytril because its overuse with chickens has led to rising antibiotic resistance in the people who eat them.

"Baytril is certainly not the only drug effective against anthrax," reassures Dr. Mark Neer of Louisiana State University Veterinary School. He says that if the FDA took Baytril off the market, veterinarians could prescribe alternative antibiotics such as doxycycline, penicillins and possibly other fluoroquinolones, such as Zinequin.

State veterinarian Dr. Maxwell Lea in Baton Rouge cautions that anthrax acts quickly and the owner might not observe anything out of the ordinary until it's too late. The good news is dogs and cats -- as well as most other carnivores, birds and reptiles -- are much less susceptible to anthrax than herbivores. Carnivores are most likely to contract anthrax if they eat undercooked meat from an infected animal.

Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that can form spores. These spores allow it to survive in soil for some time. Hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes can ingest anthrax spores while grazing and are the most vulnerable to it. Even though horses also graze, they are less susceptible to the disease.

"Humans can get anthrax from animals, but it would have to be a gross contamination ... [for example] a puncture wound," says Pastor. "It's happened, which is why we vaccinate cattle."

Thanks to regular vaccinations of livestock, the incidence of anthrax in the United States is low. High-risk areas include Central and South America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Aside from the recent, terrorism-related cases of anthrax, the infection is rarely seen in humans. Those most at risk are people who are in close contact with livestock or contaminated wool, goatskin and pelts.

There are other diseases that terrorists could use to more effectively infect animals -- and in turn, humans. "One I'd be afraid of is pasteurella," says Pastor, "which caused the bubonic plague. It responds well to antibiotics but it would spread like crazy." He adds that a more likely scenario would be for terrorists to go through the food chain rather than pets. Lea says foot and mouth disease could devastate livestock, but it wouldn't affect cats and dogs.

"Frankly, it's unlikely that terrorists would target companion animals," says Lea. "But if there are any unusual or strange circumstances, it's important to have the vet check it out, and that's whether it's anthrax or any other unexplained illness."

CORRECTION: Last week, we erroneously reported the phone number for the 6 Caring Gifts holiday charity program, which partners the local Volunteers of America chapter with WDSU-TV to collect donations to benefit children. The correct contact information is 6 Caring Gifts, 4152 Canal St., 482-2130. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

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