Complacency, lack of funds weaken U.S. defense against bioterrorism

    A new report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation includes first-person accounts from public health professionals about responding to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001. A decade later, the report calls complacency the biggest threat to bioterrorism preparedness.

    Over the years, steps have been taken to prepare for another attack, said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group.

    “Thousands of public health officials have been trained, and millions of dollars invested in infrastructure, that would help test for a similar outbreak of anthrax or other bioterror agents,” Hamburg said. “So if the attack were to occur today, we would be able to respond far more quickly.”

    But, Hamburg said, that investment is in jeopardy.

    “Dollars that are aimed toward public health-emergency preparedness, dollars that go to state and local governments have been falling. We now have 50,000 fewer public health workers than we did 20 years ago,” said Hamburg. “A third of the workers we do have will be eligible to retire within five years, and now we also have two-thirds of states cutting their public health budgets.”

    Lack of preparation worries congressman

    U.S. Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey said he is concerned.

    “I’m not real confident that our investigative or our preventive agencies are prepared for—in fact I’m pretty sure they’re not prepared for—the next bioterrorism attack,” said Holt.

    Holt said the country has demonstrated it is not well prepared for bioterrorism.

    “The one major bioterrorism attack against the United States—the anthrax attack on journalists, members of Congress and others—showed that we were unprepared,” he said. “It was poorly recognized at first, the response to it was bumbling, the investigation by the FBI was botched.

    “I’ve called for a commission like the 9/11 Commission that looks at the actual events, the actual investigation, and makes recommendations for the future,” he said.

    Letters laced with anthrax spores were dropped in a Princeton mailbox in Holt’s district. And the contamination shuttered the nearby Hamilton postal sorting center for more than three years. It killed two Washington, D.C., postal workers.

    Holt said it’s imperative authorities learn from the mistakes because he believes there will be other bioterrorism attacks against the United States.

    Yet America can’t stop itself from being vulnerable, said Ian Lustick, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor who has written about the threat of bioterrorism.

    Putting bioterrorism in perspective

    “We’re not going to prevent all of those attacks and we have to develop as a country, looking into the far future, the understanding that these are minor (events) in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “It’s nothing, for example, compared to what the Soviet Union was threatening to do to us during the Cold War. They could have annihilated us.”

    Because of the tight economy, funds are in short supply, he said.

    “There’s a scramble for funds and there is a crisis in all sectors, including medical emergency funds,” Lustick said. “So to grab onto any possible rationale for shifting scarce resources to a problem, the terrorism threat is used.”

    Hamburg of Trust for America’s Health said he worries past progress will be reversed if funds are slashed. Politicians are often quick to respond only after a public health emergency has occurred, he said.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.