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
"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
- 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
- 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,
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