Experts Question Health System’s Readiness for Potential Bioterrorism
As the United States continues to recover from last week's terrorist attacks, many federal officials and medical workers are examining a "new worry" -- the possibility that terrorists could use biological or chemical weapons, such as anthrax or smallpox toxins, the Wall Street Journal reports. Releasing smallpox or anthrax in a heavily populated area could sicken thousands of people and "severely stress the health care system for weeks or months." Although it has not been confirmed that terrorist groups have such weapons, "the viciousness of last week's events suggests that terrorists wouldn't hesitate to use them," the Journal reports. Even before the attacks last week, HHS had been "quietly intesif[ying] its push to build awareness" of the threat of biological weapons and strengthening public health defenses against biological attacks. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that since he assumed his position, he has boosted department plans to prevent and respond to "biochemical emergencies." Further, the United States has been working to increase its antibiotic stockpiles and sponsor production of a new smallpox vaccine.
Although efforts to bolster the public health infrastructure are "gearing up fast," the system "remains more a tattered web than sturdy safety net," the Journal reports. A recent study of 200 U.S. hospitals showed that only one in five had a response plan for biochemical attacks, less than one-half had decontamination units equipped with showers and less than one-third had an antidote for chemicals such as nerve gas. Another study demonstrated that many emergency workers lack the training to deal with biochemical attacks (Fialka et al., Wall Street Journal, 9/18). Yet another report -- for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank that researches international security -- found that few scientists have even seen biowarfare microbes under their microscopes and might not be familiar with tests that would identify such microbes (Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/18).
Last year, in a congressionally directed simulation of the United States' ability to respond to bioterrorism, 4,000 were infected and 2,000 died, beds "ran out, hospitals closed and drugs were exhausted." Dr. Margaret Hamburg, former New York City health commissioner and head of the bioterrorism section of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said, "The take-home message is: We're not prepared." For hospitals to be prepared, some health experts say that facilities would have to reverse the trend to cut down staffs and beds and use "just-in-time" delivery systems for drugs and vaccines. Ashton Carter, former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said, "We have a medical system that is finely tuned to peacetime" (Wall Street Journal, 9/18). Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R), chair of the congressionally chartered Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, advised state and local emergency response teams and hospitals yesterday during a briefing in Washington, D.C., to stockpile vaccines and antidotes, as well as develop ways to dispense medication during biochemical attacks. The panel plans to "move up" the winter release of a report that will include specific recommendations on border security and use of health systems and the military during biochemical attacks (Sorokin, Washington Times, 9/18).