U.S. MAKES MAJOR STRIDES -- BIOTERRORISM



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Last Updated

01 Feb 2003

Source: Associated Press, September 18, 2002.

U.S. makes major strides, yet much work remains, in preparing for bioterrorism

By LAURA MECKLER, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - A year after the first anthrax-tainted letters were dropped into a New Jersey mailbox, the United States is vastly better prepared to face bioterrorism. Yet experts agree that major holes remain in communications, emergency planning and staffing, and many fear America's resolve could fade along with memories of last year's attacks.

There have been no arrests and there are officially no suspects in the criminal investigation into the attacks-by-mail, which killed five and sickened 18. But while the probe appears stalled, efforts to prepare for the next attack have moved steadily forward.

"Public health has always been the poor stepchild. It's never received the dollars, it's never received the attention," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "One of the good consequences of 9-11 is we now have the resources available to build the public health system."

Still, much work remains.

An expanded National Pharmaceutical Stockpile is loaded with medicines, vaccines and supplies, ready to land a cargo plane with 50 tons of material in any city within hours. But many communities have no plan for transporting the goods from the tarmac to the patients.

States have new money to hire public health workers, but there's a dearth of talent for hire.

And while cities are now focusing on the threat, experts worry there is still no efficient way to get medical information to the doctors on the front lines.

The anthrax attacks were limited in scale, yet the public health system was severely taxed under the weight of investigating hundreds of false alarms, testing more than 120,000 environmental samples and distributing antibiotics to thousands of people who may have been exposed to the bacteria.

"Last fall was a tragic dry run," said Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, who advises HHS on bioterrorism. "That was horrible but we all know what it could have been had the same amount of anthrax been put into air intake systems."

The long-neglected public health infrastructure -- the people and systems who guard the community's health -- won an unprecedented, rapid infusion of dollars, nearly dlrs 1 billion. "I can't remember a time when money went out that quickly," Osterholm said.

Yet he and other experts are concerned states will fail to put up their own money to finish the job or, worse, will cut back existing state spending now that the federal dollars have arrived. Some want Washington to ensure that the states spend the money wisely, something the health department has pledged to do.