Preparing for bio attacks

In a coordinated attack May 20, terrorists released pneumonic plague in Denver and mustard gas in Ports-mouth, N.H., killing hundreds and injuring many more. Federal, state and local agencies scrambled to respond to the crisis and maintain communications as confusion and panic spread.

The attacks weren't real, of course. They were part of an exercise called Operation Topoff (for "top officials") conducted by the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the participation of many other federal, state and local agencies.

Among the lessons learned by one of the agencies involved, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was that the public Web site maintained by CDC's Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program could not handle traffic from citizens and agencies seeking information.

As a result, CDC will create a Web site that, in the event of a suspected bioterrorist attack, will only be accessible by public health officials.

"We really needed a special secure Web site for state and local officials," said Joe Henderson, program director of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program. "We knew our public Web site would be inundated and crash. And we needed a secure Web site to maintain communications."

EDS is working on developing CDC's bioterrorism web site through a GWAC. It is not part of any other contract or procurement activity at CDC.

The bioterrorism site is part of the Health Alert Network, an electronic infrastructure designed to ensure that federal, state and local public health agencies have Internet access in a crisis. Although the new site is not complete, Henderson said it could be launched within 24 hours of an incident.

"These are things you need in a hurry. Emergency responders and managers aren't experts in terrorism. It's the public health folks who are," said Woody Fogg, director of the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management.

Although there has not been a major bio-terrorism attack in this country, officials say the threat cannot be ignored. The 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway and the discovery of a biological-weapons program in Iraq show that an attack can occur anytime, anywhere, terrorism experts say.

Among the organizations that would be linked through the secure site are the Justice, Agriculture and Defense departments, and groups such as the American Society for Microbiology and the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians.

"The Internet offers the possibility to rapidly reach a large audience with information on diagnostics, treatment and other pertinent public health information," said Scott Lillibridge, director of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program in Atlanta.

But some experts say the government is not doing enough to ensure coordination among public health agencies.

"Part of it is a need for greater funding; part of it is a lack of the interelasticity of the public health community," said Frank Cilluffo, an expert on chemical and biological warfare at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. "The likelihood of a major biological event is low, but the consequences are too high to ignore."

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