Watchdog group says biological defenses remain insufficient

The nation's public health system is still woefully unprepared to handle a biological terrorism attack, according to a report released Tuesday by the Trust for America's Health.

The organization, a nonpartisan public health watchdog, sharply criticized a lack of leadership from the federal government and the absence of an overarching strategy to deal with an attack.

"More than three years after 9/11, there is no clear definition for what the public should expect as protection in the event of bioterrorist attack or public health emergency," the group said in the report, Ready or Not? Protecting the Public's Health in the Age of Bioterrorism-2004. "There are no real performance standards in place to assess how well the public would be protected in the event of such tragedies."

An official at the Health and Human Services Department criticized the report as overly negative. The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that $4 billion of federal funding has been channeled to state and local departments.

"We are light years ahead of where we were in September of 2001," the official said. The Trust for America's Health "did this same report last year. They just keep dredging up the same issues."

Trust officials said, however, that Tuesday's report covers much of the same territory as last year's because many of their concerns have been left unresolved.

Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he was surprised that terrorists have not launched a biological weapons attack against the nation's vulnerable food supply.

"Health preparedness is probably the weakest link in homeland security," said Lowell Weicker, a former senator and Connecticut governor who helped introduce the report.

Trust for America's Health measured each state's public health readiness based on 10 indexes, including spending on biological terrorism defenses and emergency planning. The report indicated that many states had actually improved their public health preparedness--compared with the organization's report from last year--but Trust officials still chastised the federal government for cutting funding and failing to provide strong leadership.

"The policies are still ill-defined and inconsistent," said Shelley Hearne, the executive director of the Trust for America's Health. "We actually are not putting in sufficient resources to get the job done … it is spread so thin, unfortunately it is not covering the bases."

Florida and North Carolina are most prepared to deal with a bioterror attack, according to the report. Both those states met nine of the criteria. Alaska and Massachusetts are the two states least prepared to respond, the report noted, satisfying only three of the criteria.

"All of our data measures show that Florida is taking public health very seriously," Hearne said. "They have built an infrastructure across the state that I would call seamless."

The report laid the blame for the overall lack of preparedness at the feet of the federal government. Hearne called on federal officials to develop a biological terrorism "game plan," conduct emergency drills and limit manufacturers' liability to encourage vaccine development. She said also officials and lawmakers should work to strengthen the underlying public health infrastructure.

"I'm not sure what else needs to happen to get the message out there that we must make public health defenses a No. 1 priority," she said.

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