CDC gears up systems vs. terror

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the 15 months since the terrorist attacks on America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ratcheted up its systems and created new ones for a rapid response against a terrorist act, its director said Dec. 9.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the mail-borne anthrax threat last fall tested CDC's ability to deliver public health services quickly, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said. The events taught the public health agency what it needed to do to respond more quickly and effectively to future threats, she said.

"We are highly prepared. We are certainly far more prepared than we were a year ago," Gerberding told attendees at the E-Gov Homeland Security conference, sponsored by FCW Media Group, in Washington, D.C.

As events unfolded after Sept. 11, she said CDC officials realized that one of the most critical parts of their jobs was communicating to the public and to other public health officials.

"If we don't get the communications right, we fail. It was a lesson the whole system learned," Gerberding said.

Since the terrorist attacks, CDC has developed networks to alert public health officials to potential threats, and it is gathering data from hospitals nationwide as part of a concerted effort to look for patterns that might signal bioterrorism.

With concerns about a potential smallpox threat and other forms of biological and chemical attacks, Gerberding said CDC and other agencies are working with state and local governments to enhance preparedness.

"We know that clinicians need to know that symptoms could predict terror," she said.

Among the projects under way, according to Gerberding:

* Systems of alerting people at a moment's notice of a terrorist threat. "We need more than Internet connectivity," Gerberding said.

* Swift countermeasures in the event of an attack. A program soon will be ready so that states would be able to immunize people against smallpox in a 10-day period.

* Sharing information gathered from public health departments and laboratories, including 300,000 lab reports collected each day, to assess whether a health trend is a terrorist attack. "We're well on our way to being able to do this," Gerberding said.

Nevertheless, James Seligman, chief information officer at CDC, said the agency still has far to go as it works toward a greater degree of standardization, both in systems and information.

"The national health care system is not a single system. There is a great degree of diversity in how health care information is collated," Seligman said.

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