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Last Updated

26 Mar 2003

Source: Star Telegram (Dallas/Fort Worth), March 26, 2003

Critics say U.S. still vulnerable to anthrax

By Mitch Mitchell, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Nearly 16 months after anthrax-contaminated letters killed five people, voices are rising to say that America is unprepared for another anthrax attack, whether it comes via the mail or from the skies.

The U.S. Postal Service has irradiation equipment that can protect federal employees in Washington, D.C., facilities from infection through anthrax-tainted letters. But postal officials say the equipment is too expensive for widespread use, and legal issues must be resolved before implementation of technology that could protect postal workers and the public.

And while the federal government has created a plan to speed medicine to any area attacked with airborne anthrax, a scientific study released this month concluded that in large urban areas, individuals could not receive medicine fast enough to stop infection.

Other scientists and public officials say that they have confidence in the ability of the health care system and first responders to safeguard people during a biological attack.

The study on airborne anthrax attacks states that because of the lag time in delivering medicine, an attack could cause more than 120,000 deaths in a metropolitan area with a population of about 13 million. The numbers are based on computer projections by the three university researchers involved in the study.

"Although the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says it can get medicines into the affected areas within seven hours of the discovery of an outbreak, what you don't see is any indication of the amount of time it would take to get the medicines into people's mouths," said Edward Kaplan, a Yale School of Medicine professor and one of the researchers for an article published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"If people have these medicines on hand, you can greatly reduce the number of deaths. But instead of everyone having the medicines on hand, you have to wait for them to come from the government. For each day of delay, you lose 10,000 lives."

A biological attack through the mail could also cause thousands of casualties, said Glenn Webb, a Vanderbilt University mathematics professor.

Webb constructed a computer model illustrating the possibilities of a mailborne anthrax transmission, adding to the numbers of letters that were mailed in the 2001 attacks and allowing for greater cross-contamination of letters.

"It quickly became apparent that a more serious attack could have easily occurred," Webb said. "In that case, it would become necessary to suspend postal service to block the danger from anyone who was receiving letters."

Scott Lillibridge, a physician and director of biosecurity and public health preparedness at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, agrees that an airborne anthrax release would be a significant challenge, but said he believes that it is one that health care services could meet.

Lillibridge also sees flaws in suggestions made by the federal government's critics, which include government examination of individual stockpiles of anthrax-fighting antibiotics.

"Imagine if we would tell people to store things for all different types of contingencies," Lillibridge said. "It would just not be practical."

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said that lawmakers are trying not to federalize every public response to every eventuality. The federal government's job is to make sure treatment and the best distribution methods are available if there is a problem, Granger said.

"I have a lot more confidence in our first responders," Granger said.

According to Jerry Kreienkamp, a Postal Service spokesman, the Postal Service wants to install biodetection and vacuum filtration systems in its mail processing facilities that would protect the public from an anthrax release from mail. But officials say that contracts to install the systems can't be finalized unless companies that make and install the equipment can be guaranteed protection from litigation.

That could be achieved by executive order or by passage of a federal law, Kreienkamp said.

The system under review would sound an alarm should anthrax or any of several biological weapons be detected. Then any biohazard would be sucked into a closed-air system that would prevent it from spreading to other postal workers or outside the postal facility.

The Postal Service is testing the biodetection and vacuum system in one of its Baltimore facilities, with plans to expand the testing to 14 additional facilities during the next few months. The Bush administration has included more than $400 million in its current budget to purchase the technology, Kreienkamp said.

Kreienkamp said the Postal Service wants to eventually place the equipment in all postal central processing facilities. "The ultimate goal is to put these systems in all of our 281 facilities," he said.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who serves on the subcommittee that will evaluate Postal Service appropriations, said he is suspicious of explanations concerning barriers to the new equipment's installation.

The federal government could take responsibility for the machines once they are installed, or Congress could enact a law setting liability limits for manufacturers and installers, Culberson said.

"I am frankly very skeptical of the liability excuse, because there are plenty of ways to deal with this," he said.