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Last Updated

31 Jan 2003

Source: CNN, January 31, 2003

Anthrax attacks exposed faults in health care

From Jeanne Meserve, CNN

CNN) -- Five anthrax deaths in 2001 let Americans know that bioterrorism, something that had only been theoretical before, could actually happen on U.S. soil.

It also taught the United States that it was not ready to cope with the bioterrorism threat.

When the nation's laboratories were swamped with thousands of samples of suspected anthrax, the decaying state of the U.S. public health infrastructure was laid bare.

As a result, more than $1 billion was pumped into the system to prepare for the threat.

In a recent survey by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, 84 percent of responding counties said they were better prepared for a biological attack, but only 3 percent said they were fully prepared.

In the confusing first days of anthrax, government officials put out what turned out to be bad information, calling it an isolated case. It taught government and health officials a big lesson in communication, experts said.

"We have to get information out quickly, we have to get it out accurately, said Jerome Hauer, with the Health and Human Services' Office of Public Heath Preparedness. "And we have to tell the public what we don't know."

Laboratory security also became an issue. When the FBI tried to track where the anthrax might have come from, it found vague records and no details.

"The procedures followed in the past by the absent-minded professor not keeping track of vials in the lab refrigerator -- that has got to end," said John Parachini, a bioterrorism expert with Rand Corp.

The research community learned things that textbooks didn't teach -- that anthrax could aerosolize and disperse widely, and that early use of antibiotics could prevent death.

But the attacks also made doctors realize they needed to educate themselves about a range of potential bioweapons. The threats made hospitals face the fact that they needed to do more planning.

So, have hospitals and health officials done enough to be prepared?

"No," said Hauer. "I think they have some work to do. I don't think there is any question that we have to continue pushing to grow the surge capacity to that if we have 5,000 or 10,000 casualties, a region can handle it."

Some experts say the nation could learn other important lessons if only investigators discovered who sent the anthrax.

"We have been working on this investigation for almost 18 months and we still don't have a perpetrator," Parachini said.