States struggling to prepare for bioterror

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

WASHINGTON -- States that routinely deal with hurricanes and other natural disasters are better prepared than others to handle bioterrorism, but overall the nation is struggling to develop plans for public health emergencies.

Florida and North Carolina, both familiar with evacuating residents and distributing emergency aid, received top rankings in a study by the private Trust for America's Health. Alaska and Massachusetts got the lowest ratings, despite infusions of federal aid designed to improve emergency responsiveness.

Overall, the report found that states are slowly becoming better prepared to handle bioterror, but most still lack statewide response plans. Federal planning money is declining.

The report echoed fears voiced by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in announcing his resignation this month, that he couldn't understand why terrorists haven't attacked the country's food supply because it would be "so easy to do."

The review also follows a year in which the country faced a shortage of flu vaccines, normally a routine protection against a known problem.

Combating bioterror is the weakest link in homeland security, said former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., now president of Trust for America's Health.

"We're not ready, and I see no excuses as to why we shouldn't be," said Weicker, who served three terms in the Senate. He said that while the report focuses on bioterror, it also shows the country is ill-prepared to deal with daily public health emergencies from childhood asthma to West Nile virus.

The report issued Tuesday found only six states are adequately prepared to distribute vaccines and antidotes in emergencies, but it named only three of them: Florida, Illinois and Louisiana.

States like Florida have spent money on training and built an effective infrastructure to deal with public health emergencies, said Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health.

The report concluded that basic bioterror detection, diagnosis and response capabilities are not in place, and the country has a long way to go to protect the public from such attacks.

A common problem was lack of money. Federal bioterror aid was decreased by about $1 million per state in 2004, and about one-third of the states saw their public health budgets decline.

The report graded states on whether they met 10 criteria, including such elements as the amount of state spending and federal aid allocated to public health, flu vaccine rates and the number of scientists and laboratories available to test for anthrax or the plague.

No state met all 10 criteria, and only Florida and North Carolina met nine of the 10. Most states met five or six criteria.

The most significant failure among the states was the lack of adequate public health labs and laboratory scientists to handle serious outbreaks. The report found only 16 states have enough labs and 21 enough scientists.

Handling an influenza pandemic, especially considering this year's shortage of flu vaccines, would be a problem for at least 20 states that have no public response plan in place.

Earlier this fall, U.S. health officials began scrambling for flu vaccine when British authorities shut down the British operations of U.S.-owned vaccine maker Chiron Corp. after finding contamination at a Liverpool plant.

Spokesman Von Roebuck of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency is doing comprehensive assessments of how well-prepared states are but will not release a detailed report. Instead, he said the CDC is working with the states to help development of response plans.

This is the second year the Trust for America's Health has compiled the bioterror report card on the states. But changes in the grading make comparisons with last year's scores difficult.

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