Jewish World Review August 28, 2002 / 20 Elul, 5762

CDC says it's ready for terrorist threats

By Steve Mitchell | (UPI) The U.S. government has shifted its priorities and improved its readiness to respond to terrorist attacks since Sept. 11 and the anthrax letters last fall, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The agency has been busy over the past year "scaling up, speeding up and streamlining our operations" to respond to a terrorist attack involving biological, chemical or radiological weapons, CDC Director Julie Gerberding told reporters at a briefing.

Gerberding noted that the CDC's involvement in the outbreaks of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, which have been sweeping across the country this summer, "has given us an opportunity to practice our public health response capacity." This is because the agency is "using the same practices that we would use in the event of a terrorist attack," she said.

Among the major improvements the CDC has made are the dispensing of more than $900 million to state and local governments to improve their preparedness for responding to terrorist attacks, Gerberding said.

However, R. Gregory Evans, director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections at St. Louis University, told United Press International this funding "will probably be inadequate" to prepare local governments and health departments to respond to a terrorist attack.

The money will likely "just be a first step in readying these health departments," Evans said. One of the problems is many health departments at the local or city level have yet to put plans in place for responding to terrorist attacks or rehearse them.

"We are just starting on those improvements, and we still have a long way to go," Evans said.

Other steps the CDC has taken include adding additional antibiotics and vaccines to the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile program and increasing the number of medical supplies ready to be shipped anywhere in the country within 12 hours, Gerberding said. The agency also has increased its training of rapid response teams, which "are ready to load and go whenever a problem arises," she said.

Evans said these measures probably will be ineffective. "You are not going to know an attack occurs until the first person comes down with disease, so you need to start treating immediately, not 12 hours later," he said.

"You need to have those medicines at the local level so they can be dispensed immediately," Evans added. Local health departments should have a current inventory of the medications available at local pharmacies and other places in the community so they can be distributed immediately until the CDC resources arrive, he said.

James Hughes, director of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases, noted the agency "remains at extremely high alert due to threat of another act of bioterrorism."

The CDC has taken steps to monitor for the occurrence and detection of infectious disease outbreaks that could signal a bioterrorist attack, he said. These include monitoring of emergency rooms, pharmacies, 911 calls and calls to poison control centers for activity indicating someone has become ill due to a biological or chemical agent.

Evans cautioned that such a surveillance system is unlikely to be sensitive enough to detect a biological or chemical attack. The first symptoms usually resemble the flu and there are too many diseases that have similar symptoms for medical professionals to distinguish between naturally occurring disease and a bioterrorist attack, he said.

"It will really depend on an astute physician who will pick up the first few cases and sound the alarm," Evans said. To this end, it is crucial to educate physicians to recognize the symptoms of these diseases and to make them aware that biological attacks can occur, he said.

Hughes said the CDC is doing just that and so far "has educated thousands of health care providers around the country" about the signs and symptoms of diseases such as anthrax and smallpox.

Evans said the threat of a bioterrorist attack is "definitely" something we have to learn to live with and be prepared for. Terrorists are getting more sophisticated and it is only a matter of time before one of them launches a biological attack on the United States, he said.

"They showed with the World Trade Center attack that they want to cause as many casualties as they can, and there is no cheaper way of doing that than with biological weapons," he said.

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© 2002, United Press International