Public Health Experts Urge Congressional Action
A group of public health experts warned lawmakers yesterday that the United States is "woefully unprepared" to address a biological or chemical attack and urged them to address the problem, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (Eversley, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 10/10). Appearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Dr. D.A. Henderson, director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that while the U.S. public health system "worked well" in Florida, where doctors identified two men exposed to anthrax, "If we got 500 cases, it would be a totally different story. We would be overwhelmed." Henderson, tapped by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson last week to lead a new bioterrorism advisory panel, said that the federal government should establish under HHS a "single, centralized medical and public health strategy for preparing the nation to respond" to bioterrorist attacks (Stolberg, New York Times, 10/10). Dr. Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the committee that only 24 states have CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officers trained to address a bioterrorist attack and only 32 states employ a public health veterinarian who could identify diseases, such as anthrax, transmitted from animals to humans. He added that only 10% of local and state health departments have access to e-mail, which could be useful in transmitting news about a biological attack (McQueen, AP/Contra Costa Times, 10/10). "If a bioterrorist attack occurred on a Friday afternoon, there would be no report of it until Monday morning" at most health departments, he said (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 10/10). Henderson said, "It is difficult for me to exaggerate the deficiencies of our public health capacities" (New York Times, 10/10).
Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) last week proposed legislation to add $1.4 billion to the $350 million that the Bush administration has proposed to spend on measures to prevent and respond to biological attacks, including funds to stockpile medicines and conduct food safety inspections (AP/Contra Costa Times, 10/10). "Today's hearing will provide further evidence that our $1.4 billion plan is fully justified and that we should act now to provide this emergency funding," Kennedy said (Hudson, Washington Times, 10/10). In addition, a group of senators who served as governors in the past introduced a bill yesterday that would provide states with at least $5 million to help develop measures to respond to a bioterrorist attack. The bill would also provide an additional $200 million to states based on population. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said that the legislation would provide states with the "tools to fight chemical and bioterrorism, without telling them how to implement their tools" (Thompson, Omaha World-Herald, 10/10). Public health experts said that states could use the additional funding to train health professionals, build medicine stockpiles and improve plans to distribute medicines in the event of a bioterrorist attack (AP/Contra Costa Times, 10/10). However, Henderson said, "There are no simple actions or one-time infusions of funding that will rebuild a deteriorated public health system" (CongressDaily/AM, 10/10).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.