Shoring up against bioterror

National Governors Association

The threat of biological weapons is growing and states have a vital national

security role to play in preparing against such actions, several health

experts said at the National Governors Association winter meeting this week.

"We have been very complacent about bioweapons and we have been very

complacent about infectious diseases," Dr. Donald Henderson, director of

the Office of Public Health Preparedness in the Department of Health and

Human Services, told several governors Feb. 24 in Washington, D.C.

Henderson said that about 45 laboratories in the world could make anthrax

available. "Day by day we worry, eAre we prepared as we possibly can be?'

" he said.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental

Hygiene, said that during last year's anthrax scare, the state reacted well

overall, but the system was strained and another major event would have

created a serious problem.

He said the state tested about 2,000 packages and letters and more than

30 private mailrooms, post offices and office buildings. It also handled

about 1,500 public and media inquiries, investigated about 85 cases and

inoculated more than 3,000 individuals. The activities cost the state more

than $2 million, said Benjamin, who participated in a panel discussion Feb.

25 at the meeting in Washington, D.C.

Health experts outlined several recommendations to improve the public

health system, including:

* Stable and flexible spending.

* More public education.

* Better epidemiological labs.

* Improved reporting of infectious diseases and other outbreaks.

* More coordination among all parties.

Another panel member, Dr. Tara O'Toole, director for the Johns Hopkins

University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, suggested that gubernatorial

leadership, hiring experts at the state level, linking the medical and public

health networks, conducting assessments and exercises, and getting more

federal funding would help in the effort.

President Bush's $2.9 billion investment to battle bioterrorism — including

$1.1 billion to the states for planning — is a good beginning, the health

experts added. Of the $1.1 billion, the federal government released $200

million to states and territories nearly a month ago to help states begin

planning. The funds are part of a bioterrorism appropriations bill Bush

signed into law Jan. 10.

The states have until mid-April to send in governor-approved plans to

HHS, which will review the plans and release the remaining funds to the

states.

Information technology will play a large role in bioterrorism planning,

Aldona Valicenti, Kentucky's chief information officer, said after the panel

discussion. Many state CIOs, who have responsibility over cybersecurity

and information systems, are members of their governor's homeland security

teams, said Valicenti, adding that "our technology enables all other disciplines."

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