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Last Updated

02 Jan 2003

Source: Reuters, September 19, 2002.

CDC Head: Agency More Prepared for Bioterror Attack

By Alicia Ault

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is better prepared than ever to meet the demands of an attack with a biological weapon, the agency's new chief, Dr. Julie Gerberding, said Thursday.

Speaking to a group of reporters, Gerberding said the agency had been practicing shifting resources in a hurry and improving its communications to the public. She noted that some of the preparation was evident in how the CDC was handling the West Nile virus outbreak this summer.

For instance, the agency has deployed teams around the country to quickly collect blood samples from potential victims and then rapidly send them to a CDC lab in Ft. Collins, Colorado for analysis.

Even so, she noted, "that doesn't mean there aren't gaps." Gerberding said the agency had been working particularly hard on its dealings with the public, noting that during last year's anthrax mailings, the CDC appeared to be disorganized. Top staff had not done a good job of talking about risk either, she said.

"We do need to be prepared to tell people what we know when we know it," said Gerberding, adding that CDC staff should also tell the public that information could change daily.

Gerberding said the agency is confident that it now has the network in place to detect so-called "sentinel" cases of diseases like anthrax that might indicate a wider epidemic is under way. Since September 11, 2001, the agency has been receiving many more calls from physicians and health departments concerned about patients with suspicious fevers and coughs, she said.

These "false alarms" show the system is working, Gerberding stated.

"If there's a first case of smallpox, we're likely to know it, and in very quick order," she asserted.

Gerberding also defended the agency's follow-up of patients who contracted cutaneous and inhaled anthrax last year. In several recent news articles, physicians and patients themselves have claimed the agency seems to be uninterested in their progress--a curiosity, given that much could be learned.

But Gerberding said she has "personally been very concerned about the follow-up," and says the agency has been doing much to ensure it collects data. But, she noted, the CDC can't talk to the patients or get access to their medical records without permission of the state and local health authorities and the patient, as well.

The CDC has been actively monitoring the 10,000 people who received antibiotics due to potential exposure to anthrax, Gerberding pointed out. They were mostly federal postal workers and other government employees, and thus the agency did not need special permission to study them. The CDC study will continue for another 2 years, she said.