Health system underprepared for bioterrorism threats; experts urge medical officials get vaccines, access to intelligence

Tuesday, October 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Only half the states have federal experts specially trained to prevent or contain bioterrorism, says a leading public health doctor who wants local officials to have better access to vaccines and information.

``We also have to change the way we do business to meet the level of the threats now facing us,'' Dr. Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told senators Tuesday.

He added that only 32 states have public health veterinarians, key to identifying diseases that either are transmitted from animals to humans or are usually found in animals, such as anthrax.

Extra money should help train health workers, provide medicines to combat unleashed diseases and improve the methods for distributing such treatments during an attack, witnesses told the Senate health committee.

Akhter, whose group represents 50,000 public health officials in federal, state and local governments, was among a group of scientists who testified that bioterrorism can't be fought with cash alone. They also urged flexibility for the 50 state and 3,000-plus city and county public health departments.

The debate over increase funding comes as federal officials are investigating the possibility of foul play on two Florida anthrax cases. One man has died and hundreds of co-workers are getting tested for the disease.

``The reality is that approximately 10 percent of the health departments in the United States do not even have e-mail,'' said Akhter. ``Public health must be included in the intelligence process, and given appropriate clearance to review suspicious occurrences and threats. ... Good intelligence is key to preventing attacks.''

Top Senate lawmakers have proposed adding $1.4 billion to the $350 million that the federal government spends to detect, prevent and fight deadly diseases that might be spread by terrorists.

``The fact remains that a biological or chemical attack on our soil could be even more deadly and destructive than the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,'' said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Frist, a surgeon, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said they would meet with the White House to gain support for the package that includes funds for the government medicine stockpile and food safety inspections.

Other senators are proposing their own plans to increase bioterrorism funds.

``It would not be sensible for the federal government to dictate what the most urgent spending priorities should be in Newark or Phoenix or Montgomery County, Md.,'' said Dr. D.A. Henderson of Johns Hopkins University. Known for his role helping wipe out smallpox in 1977, Henderson will head a new commission advising on bioterrorism preparedness.

He said federal officials are shoring up supplies of smallpox vaccine.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has insisted federal doctors are ready to combat any bioterrorist attack.

But witnesses said doctors might not be able to detect symptoms of anthrax or other bioterror agents in time to save sufferers or to contain an outbreak of a contagious disease like smallpox.

Many local departments are closed on weekends, and a Friday evening outbreak might not be identified until Monday morning, said Akhter.

``There would be no discrete event; no explosion, no immediately obvious disaster to which firefighters and police and ambulances would rush,'' said Henderson, also director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.