San Diego Union-Tribune

October 10, 2001

Bioterror safeguards assailed as inadequate


WASHINGTON -- The nation's public health system is unprepared to respond to a biological attack, four bioterrorism experts told a Senate panel yesterday. Bringing the system up to speed will require millions of dollars in federal spending, they added.

"A wide-scale bioterrorism attack would create mass panic and overwhelm most existing state and local systems within a few days," said Michael T. Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Osterholm is co-author of a book published last year, "Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe." It warned that a bioterrorist offensive is inevitable.

The lack of readiness extends from thousands of hospitals, state and local health departments to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the experts
told a panel of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

"It is difficult to exaggerate the deficiencies of our present public health capacities," said Donald A. Henderson, a physician and director of the Johns
Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. "It is inaccurate to even call the varied public health structures at state, city and county level a public health system, since many of these units are not connected or coordinated in any meaningful way."

The testimony came on the same day federal officials were continuing their investigation of the possibility of foul play in two Florida anthrax cases. One man has died and hundreds of co-workers are being tested for the disease.

Henderson said that while the public health system had worked well in identifying and containing a potential anthrax outbreak in Florida, the case wasn't a good test of the nation's ability to respond to a germ attack.

"If we got 500 cases, it would be a totally different story," Henderson said after testifying before a Senate panel. "We would be overwhelmed."

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

And while the experts acknowledged that steps have been taken to strengthen the response, they continue to see gaping holes.

"We are better positioned than we were several months ago, indeed several weeks ago, but much remains to be done," Henderson said.

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 health experts yesterday told the Senate hearing that other problems include a lack of communication among health agencies, as well as a lack of
experience by medical laboratories in identifying biological agents, such as anthrax.

One out of 10 public health departments "do not even have e-mail," added Mohammed N. Akhter, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association. "If a bioterrorist attack occurred on a Friday afternoon, there would be no report of it until Monday morning under the current staffing profile of most health departments."

Also, most doctors and nurses, who are in a position to be the first to recognize possible symptoms of a biological assault, "have never seen cases of certain diseases, such as smallpox or plague," testified Janet Heinrich, director of health care-public health issues at the U.S. General Accounting Office. "And some biological agents initially produce symptoms that can be easily confused with influenza or other, less virulent illnesses, leading to a delay in diagnosis or identification."

Reports from Union-Tribune news services were used in this story.