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3 June 1998
Source: Hardcopy The New York Times, June 3, 1998, p. A14

U.S. Unprepared for Bioterrorism, Experts Say


WASHINGTON, June 2--Representatives of the nation's public health service told a Senate committee yesterday that the country was woefully unprepared for a biological terrorist attack and criticized Government spending on biological defense as misguided because so much of it goes to the Pentagon instead of public hospitals and doctors.

Witness after witness described shortages of trained medical personnel, the lack of high-security laboratories in which lethal, highly contagious microbes can be tested and identified, public health clinics with rotary phones and no computers or ready access to disease data banks.

Senator Lauch Faircloth, the North Carolina Republican who chaired the hearing, called the testimony "frightening," a sentiment echoed by his witnesses.

"There's nothing that scares the hell out of me like this issue, Senator," said Michael Osterholm, Minnesota's state epidemiologist who spoke for the American Society for Microbiology.

Dr. Osterholm criticized the $300 million recently set aside for the National Guard to set up rapidresponse units, which he said would only play a "minor" role in responding to an infectious outbreak. "The public health system has not been brought into any of this," he said.

Luther L. Fincher Jr., the fire chief of Charlotte, N.C., where there was a recent bioterrorism threat that turned out to be a false alarm, noted that while the Department of Defense was supposed to leave S300,000 worth of equipment in his district to help combat biological and chemical terrorism after police officers, firefighters and other "first responders" are trained this fall, there were no plans for further training.

Ralph D. Morris, the president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, listed the problems faced by the nation's 3,000 public health officials. ~bout half of all local health departments do not have the use of E-mail, and at least 1,000 of them have no access to any online or Internet service. Seventy percent of the health directors said their staff had little or no expertise in using online services and data. Twenty percent of local health departments still use rotary phones

"They just cross their fingers that they can reach the right people by phone or that the fax goes through," Mr. Morris said.

The witnesses agreed that a biological attack would be different from one involving chemical, nuclear, or other weapons of mass destruction, in that hours, perhaps days might pass before it was known that a target had been attacked.

Donald A. Henderson, the professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health who did not testify but recently urged that smallpox vaccine be produced and stockpiled again, said public health care facilities and personnel were the first line of defense.

"If we are willing to spend $300 million on the National Guard, why not invest a billion dollars in our real first line of defense, our hospitals," Mr. Henderson said in an interview.

James M. Hughes, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, said that because none of the biological agents considered most likely to be used as weapons are public health problems in the United States, "we have limited capacity to diagnose them, either at the state, local or Federal level."

Mr. Hughes also said that while he now had 10 to 12 people studying the plague, no one on his staff was working on anthrax, one of the most attractive agents for terrorists because its highly lethal spores are durable.

[Congressional Record: June 2, 1998 (Digest)]
[Page D572-D574]
From the Congressional Record Online via GPO Access []

                                              Tuesday, June 2, 1998

                              Daily Digest



Committee on Appropriations: Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human 
Services, Education and Related Agencies concluded hearings to examine 
the public health response to disease outbreaks caused by biological 
and chemical terrorism, focusing on the current system of public health 
surveillance and control at the State, local, and Federal levels, and 
certain terrorist incidents involving biological agents, after 
receiving testimony from James M. Hughes, Director, National Center for 
Infectious Diseases, and Richard J. Jackson, Director, National Center 
for Environmental Health, both of the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention, and Robert F. Knouss, Director, Office of Emergency 
Preparedness, all of the Department of Health and Human Services; Ralph 
D. Morris, Galveston County Health Department, LaMarque, Texas, on 
behalf of the National Association of County and City Health Officials; 
Michael T. Osterholm, Minneapolis, Minnesota, on behalf of the American 
Society for Microbiology; Edward Thompson, Association of State and 
Territorial Health Officials, Washington, D.C.; and Luther J. Fincher, 
Jr., Charlotte Fire Department, Charlotte, North Carolina, on behalf of 
the International Association of Fire Chiefs.