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Experts: Gov't must sharpen message on bioterrorism

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A panel of public health experts said Thursday that the government urgently needs to improve its ability to communicate effectively with the American public in the event of future bioterrorist attacks on the United States.

The group told a congressional committee that mixed messages and a lack of useful, credible information during the spate of recent anthrax attacks helped create a climate of confusion and heightened the level of public fear.

"There was no obvious centralized leadership, no voice of authority, and inconsistent information that was soon outdated or required correction on a daily basis," said Joseph Waeckerle, who testified before a Government Reform subcommittee, on behalf of the American College of Emergency Physicians. "This resulted in the American public remaining in an informational vacuum."

Waeckerle was one of several panelists who said the U.S. government needs to reform the way it handles bioterrorism incidents in order to prevent widespread panic should the nation face a bioterrorism attack, especially one that is deadlier than the recent anthrax attacks that killed five people.

"We were not prepared for the anthrax bio-attack, regardless of its source. And the fear generated by it far outweighed the health threat," said former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. "Think of the distraction and the chaos involved with fewer than 50 anthrax victims, real or uncertain in the anthrax scare. How would our resources handle not 50 but 5,000? How about 50,000? How about 5 million?"

Koop, who was surgeon general during the Reagan administration, said the nation needs to launch a new biodefense system to address the possibility of a future attack with biological weapons of mass destruction. That, he said, would help assure the American public that it can be defended should such an attack take place.

"Without such a plan in place, I don't think we can reduce the present panic, which many of our people feel," he said.

Panelists said much of that panic resulted from confusion due to a lack of solid, credible information following the recent anthrax attacks. Part of the problem, they said, was the lack of a single, authoritative government official who was out visibly addressing the matter and countering misinformation and false rumors immediately after news broke about the attacks.

Mohammad Akhter, president of the American Public Health Association, said potential bioterrorism victims need "clear, concise, usable information from an authoritative source."

"I'm sorry to say -- and I agree with my colleagues here -- that we were unable to provide that in the past. And I see no change, as we speak today," Akhter said.

Surgeon General David Satcher, who also testified before the subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations, acknowledged there were some deficiencies in the response to the outbreak, yet he defended the overall government effort. Satcher said the quick mobilization of resources and medical personnel to affected areas saved more people from anthrax infections.

He noted that more than 30,000 people were put on antibiotics, and at least 5,000 of those were told to continue taking antibiotics for 60 days.

"Many of those people would have gotten inhalation anthrax" if not for the government response, he said.


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