Shoring up against bioterror
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Feb 25, 2002
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
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."