Halting response to the 4 Ebola cases in U.S. valuable in preparations for bioterror attacks

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BioterrorismHalting response to the 4 Ebola cases in U.S. valuable in preparations for bioterror attacks

Published 5 May 2015

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed at least 10,000 people to date. There were only four Ebola diagnoses in the United States, one of which resulted in a death, but many public health officials say the U.S. response to in-country cases is a lesson on how government can prepare for a bioterror attack. Experts warn, though, thatthe United States is only prepared to confront a fraction of the fifteen potential biological agents that could be released in an attack, adding that many U.S. cities would be left scrambling to respond.

In 2010 the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation gave the Obama administration a failing grade for the administration’s efforts to prepare and respond to a biological attack. Then came the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has killed at least 10,000 people to date. There were only four Ebola diagnoses in the United States, one of which resulted in a death, but many public health officials say the U.S. response to in-country cases is a lesson on how government can prepare for a bioterror attack.

We can learn lessons from other outbreaks that are naturally occurring,” said U.S. Representative Martha McSally (R-Arizona). “We can identify weaknesses in our response and even if it wasn’t terrorism, it presses the system at the same level.” McSally chairs the House Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee, which will examine over the next few months, the threat of bioterror attacks and the U.S. preparedness to respond to them.

McSally told Foreign Policy that what her subcommittee considered the biggest failure in the response to Ebola within U.S. borders was a lack of central command. Bureaucracy got in the way of executing an effective response and the Ebola czar President Barack Obama appointed was “a messaging social operative more than anything,” McSally said, adding that preparation for a bioterror attack can only begin when Obama is willing to give someone the job.

Leonard Cole, director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, shares McSally’s concerns about a cohesive national response to bioterrorism. He noted that the governors of New Jersey and California ignored Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines by insisting those under observation for Ebola be subject to a twenty-one day quarantine. The CDC had declared monitoring was necessary but a quarantine was not required. That contradiction, Cole said, was a major breach of protocol for confronting a public health threat. “Rule No. 1 is there has to be an orderly and consistent manner of informing the public,” he said.

McSally said the United States is only prepared to confront a fraction of the fifteen potential biological agents that could be released in an attack, adding that many U.S. cities would be left scrambling to respond. New York is better prepared for an attack or pandemic outbreak because it has spent money on trial runs of emergency response systems, but even that city would need a significant increase in federal funding to prepare its entire population for a bioterror event. Then there are rural areas, which face entirely different challenges.

“We can’t possibly expect every single hospital in every single rural area to have the ability to respond to this,” she said. McSally has proposed setting up regional response stations and transportation systems that could evacuate those affected in a bioterror or pandemic event.

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