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Bioterrorism Conference Provides Few Answers

Experts on bioterrorism from across the country gathered at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) last week to discuss the threat of bioterrorism, and how individuals, states and nations could respond. While the symposium had been planned for months, Dean Barry R. Bloom of the HSPH noted its timeliness. He discussed how the events of September 11 had revealed vulnerabilities to terrorism in this country that had not previously engaged the public?s consciousness. Among these vulnerabilities is the threat of bioterrorism.

Margaret Hamburg, Vice President for Biological Programs, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke of the need to enhance the public health infrastructure. Hamburg warned that downsizing and cost cutting in the nation?s health care system has severely limited its ability to respond in a crisis, whether that crisis is bioterrorism or a different catastrophic event. There is simply not enough flexibility in the system to address needs quickly and adequately.

At present, bioterrorism hoaxes are straining the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of hoaxes has increased from 27 in 1997, to over 2,000 in the month of October. In the face of growing public concern, education can reduce fear and panic. However, presenters advised the audience not to rely on information from politicians or newspaper articles that cite unnamed sources. They stressed the need for listening to sources who understand the issues.

Matthew Meselson, Co-director of Harvard?s Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons Armament and Arms Limitation cautioned, “Believe nothing…if you hear it from a political figure.” He warned that despite good intentions, when political figures use technical words, they often use them incorrectly. He suggested that asking politicians to explain biology is like asking them to explain Einstein?s theory of relativity.
Historically, biochemical warfare research has focused on the tactical use of biochemical weapons on overseas battlefields and on strategic use against U.S. forces. However, recent incidents of anthrax infection have resulted in a call for a radical shift in thinking about and researching bioterrorism, emphasizing what precautions might need to be taken at home.

Panelists recommended increasing intelligence capacity, decreasing access to dangerous pathogens, and increasing international collaboration. The question of how to create a system which increases the safety of the American people without impeding important science was left open to question.

Meselson closed the symposium questioning the evolving role of public health in the global community. He reminded the audience that one third of the human race currently suffers from tuberculosis, and that huge numbers of people still die from malaria infections every year. Although the anthrax incidents are getting a lot of attention right now, the numbers of afflicted people have to be put in context.
Video from the Bioterrorism Symposium is available online from the Harvard School of Public Health at www.hsph.harvard.edu/bioterrorism/

November 5, 2001
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