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Last Updated

09 Dec 2002

Source: Boston Globe, September 29, 2002.


Dr. Frank Young on US response to bioterrorism

By Globe Staff

It will be a year this Friday when the word anthrax became part of the national vocabulary. That's the day a newspaper photographer (case 5) was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, the first episode in what would become a two-month spate of attacks in which the deadly spores were circulated through the mail. In all, five people died. Since then, the Postal Service, government agencies, and private companies have dramatically changed the way they handle mail.

As President Bush continues to press for a war on Iraq - in part because of Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of biological weapons - it's a good time to reassess the nation's ability to respond to biological terrorism. Globe reporter Jeffrey Krasner spoke last week with Dr. Frank Young, one of the nation's premier experts on the government's response to bioterrorism. Dr. Young served as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and rear admiral, US Public Health Service. He is also a director of EluSys Therapeutics Inc., a New Jersey firm developing a method to treat blood-borne diseases.

Q. How has the nation responded to last year's anthrax attacks?

A. The proposal of a Homeland Security Department is a good step in the right direction. We've also developed a first-responder system with a widespread distribution system for pharmaceuticals, a network of labs and infectious disease surveillance teams, a training system for medical strike teams, and information on how to protect the public in the event a disaster occurs.

Q. Where are we lagging?

A. Less effective, as evidenced by the response to the anthrax letters, is the ability to go in and do research to determine vulnerability. For instance, the pores in the paper of envelopes are 500 to 1,000 times larger than an anthrax spore. So as the post office [sorted] letters last year, spores would come out. It's very important when a risk occurs to rapidly go in and do risk assessment rather than give pronouncements on what's safe and what's not safe.

Q. Can you give an example of some misleading pronouncements that weren't based on scientific assessments of risk?

A. During the Midwest flood in 1993, I was the coordinator of health and medical support for the US Public Health Service. One state told citizens to boil water for 30 seconds before drinking it. Another recommended a roaring boil for a minute. Another said three minutes and another said four minutes.

Q. Are we prepared for another round of anthrax attacks?

A. We're much more ready than we were before. There's considerable research that's gone into the basic biology and there's been work done on vaccination and studies done to help prepare therapies for people who are toxic.

Q. What do we need to be fully prepared?

A. You need an early detection system, you need a determination of who is infected, you need a stockpile of medicines to stem the panic and prevent a run on the pharmacies, you need an organization to prevent the hospitals themselves from becoming infected, and you need an epidemiological tracking system, so if people go home and get sick, we can track it.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. What keeps me awake at night is the fear that we'll see a large-scale terror attack, not the small-scale anthrax or midrange Trade Center attack, but something that affects hundreds of thousands of people. It's important for the nation to realize that there's no absolute safety.