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Antidote to Terrorism: Preparedness

Public Health Experts Plan for the Unthinkable

Be Prepared continued...

Public health experts, the people who will be at the frontlines of any major public health alert, emphasize that anti-bioterrorism efforts involve far more than emergency response teams, ambulances, and vaccination programs.

"While people are intrigued by the rocket-science nature of biological weapons and whether it's a virus or chemical, sometimes we are killed by the very basics -- this person didn't know the phone number for that person, and didn't call them," says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health.

She notes that rescue efforts following the World Trade Center attack in New York were hampered by incompatible police and fire-department communications systems. Similarly, an analysis by Japanese researchers that followed the Tokyo subway attacks determined that rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of adequate decontamination facilities and by the fact that emergency response personnel -- police, fire, hospitals and government -- acted independently of one another and without central coordination.

The HHS official tells WebMD that doctors are one of the most important components of the bioterrorism alert system. They must be vigilant for anything out of the ordinary, such as a patient who has a respiratory infection from a type of bacteria or virus that normally infects the skin. In addition, physicians, emergency response personnel, nurses, and others must quickly notify the appropriate public health authorities so that action plans can be implemented.

Prothrow-Stith says that public health preparedness must include:

  • Connectivity -- making sure that all of the agencies needed to respond to an event are known to each other and able to communicate easily with one another

  • Emergency drills and exercises that test both emergency action plans and the existing public health system. If there is a statewide flu vaccination program, for example, that could be the basis for an emergency smallpox vaccination program, she notes.

  • Coordination among various emergency response systems and public health agencies to ensure mutual understanding of resources, command structures, and integration of information.

  • Ensuring that citizens in all communities receive adequate public health information and access to information sources and services. Disparities that exist in healthcare access and delivery under normal circumstances will become magnified during an emergency, Prothrow-Stith cautions.

  • Families should also develop individual disaster plans that include information about whom to contact, where to gather in case of an emergency, etc.

Like it or not, Leaning tells WebMD, "the bottom line is that the threat is now higher than it has been in the past; the responses we are developing will help reduce the damage; but we are now and will remain vulnerable to greater insecurity than what we might have imagined prior to September 11."

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