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"The weakest link"

Despite the gaps within the Health Alert Network, public health experts say it has worked effectively during the current anthrax scare, which has claimed four lives and infected 13 others as of Nov. 6.

In particular, the system helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distribute information such as how to handle suspicious mail, how to deal with patients who fear they've been infected, and appropriate ways to diagnose and test for anthrax, said Dr. C. Mack Sewell, New Mexico's state epidemiologist.

"This is one circumstance where preparation was in place and people are responding with some good knowledge and thoughtful strategies," said Edwin "Ted" Pratt, director of government relations for the National Association of Local Boards of Health, which represents more than 3,200 local health boards in the country.

"I think the Health Alert Network has been a big success," said Tom Milne, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Glitches occurred shortly after Sept. 11, when information did not get out fast enough, but CDC was very responsive, he said.

But the system isn't completely fool-proof, Milne said. The nation should increase the "redundancy assurance" so that if phone lines are down, information can be disseminated in a variety of other ways, he said.

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