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Change needed to combat bioterror threat

Sen. Robert Byrd
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) cautioned against misleading the public by downplaying the threat of bioterrorism.  

By Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- Hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill focused on bioterrorism, targeting what needs to be done on the government level to prevent and prepare for such attacks.

Before a skeptical Senate panel, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson defended U.S. readiness to battle bioterrorism, though he admitted there are gaps in the system.

"We are prepared to respond. But there is much more we can do, and must do, to strengthen our response," Thompson said.

Many of the comments from speakers like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Dr. Stephen Cantrill focused on the fact that the United States' current health care system could be overwhelmed in the event of an outbreak caused by the spread of smallpox or anthrax.

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Cantrill, associate director of the Department of Emergency Management at Denver Health Medical Center, told CNN on Wednesday morning that such an attack would lead to "an overwhelming of our resources.

"Hospitals in this day and age have very little surge capacity," Cantrill said. "They can't deal with a load that is suddenly 10 to 20 times normal."

Thompson was challenged on this issue before the Senate panel. He admitted that there are problems, particularly at the state and local level, but he defended comments made in the media that the United States is prepared to handle "any contingency, any consequence from any kind of bioterrorism attack."

"Will you still love me if I tell you I don't believe that?" asked Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

"I still love you," quipped Thompson in return.

'A large problem'

The hearings were held in response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that left thousands missing or dead. While the attacks were the result of hijacked airliners, speculation abounded that the suspected terrorists also considered bioterrorism -- the unleashing of deadly toxins or diseases on an unsuspecting U.S. public.

Echoing the new concern, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, "I believe we are not far from a day when a nation or organization will possess both biological weapons and the will to use them."

Speaking on CNN before his appearance at the hearings, Cantrill said two areas need to be immediately addressed to help the U.S. respond to such an attack: the best way to give antibiotics to a large population; and educating doctors on signs of an outbreak.

"If you have to give antibiotics to a large number of people in a short period of time from a logistical point of view, what is the best way to do that? We are going to be doing some research on that," he said. "The hospitals need some help, and we need to get the medical community educated. That's a large problem as well."

Thompson, meantime, acknowledged the health system does have gaps, and said he is seeking $800 million more this year to fill those gaps. Most of the money would go to state and local health departments, to train local physicians and laboratories in recognizing symptoms of anthrax, smallpox and other worrisome agents.

He also said public health officials responded well on September 11 when terrorists crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

For example, 35 epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially came to help New York City hospitals cope with the emergency. In addition, Thompson said, for the first time a "push pack" containing 50 tons of medical supplies was dispatched to New York "without a hitch."

'I don't think people need to be alarmed'

Thompson was also asked what ordinary citizens should do to avoid an outbreak.

"I would strongly tell Mr. and Mrs. Citizen ... be very vigilant," Thompson said. "Be very vigilant about your activities. And anything suspicious, and any kind of cold or anything mysterious dealing with your body -- illness or infections of rashes or coughing -- get to a doctor. And ask that doctor if he or she knows anything about smallpox, anthrax, botulism.

"I would not suggest that they buy a gas mask," Thompson said. "I would not suggest they go out and buy a lot of (antibiotics). I would strongly just urge them to be more alert than they have in the past."

Cantrill agreed there is no need to stock up on gas masks and antibiotics.

"I think the risk is real. I don't think people need to be alarmed," Cantrill told CNN. "I think we need to be alert. I think we need to be educated, and I think we need to continue our preparedness, but there should not be a large degree of alarm."

"I do not own (a gas mask)," Cantrill said. "I do not recommend that. Certainly, the Israelis have them issued to the population. Their threat is much greater. Here, the threat is not zero; the threat is real. But you don't even know what the gas mask will protect you from. Gas masks are a very technically complex item and you need to make sure you're getting the right type. No, I don't recommend gas masks."


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