Ask The Expert: November-December 2001


What have we learned from the anthrax scare about how the public-health system should cope with bioterrorism threats?

Recent events have demonstrated how difficult it is for the various government agencies that make up the public health system (PHS) to walk the information tightrope. On one hand, the release of too much information risks unnecessarily alarming the general public. If no attacks are carried out, then the PHS is chided for "crying wolf." In addition, too many false alarms might engender a sense of complacency that would be especially hazardous in the event of a real attack.

On the other hand, if information is released on a "need to know" basis, there is a significant possibility that not all the affected parties will be informed, or informed in an expedient manner. This was recently illustrated by the outcry from the postal workers union that they were being unnecessarily exposed to contaminated mail without being duly informed or protected. This approach could also lead to real danger in the event of release of an agent that could be spread by person-to-person contact, such as smallpox.

The PHS, along with the Department of Homeland Defense, has an obligation to the American public to provide the best protection possible against any kind of health threat, be it naturally occurring or artificially introduced. One way of augmenting our defenses is to increase the awareness of not only the health-care provider, but also of the average American.

Education is essential. Education of all health-care providers in being able to recognize the presentation of anthrax and other biological-weapon agents should be mandatory. We should also look to the education of the average American as to what the actual risks are, how to reduce them through appropriate actions (such as good personal hygiene), and what general signs and symptoms to look for and report to their local health-care provider. Timely warnings containing all current and pertinent information should be judiciously issued to those most at risk.

Each and every one of us should develop a level of heightened awareness moderated by good old-fashioned common sense.

--Allan Shang B.S.E. '83, assistant clinical professor in the department of anesthesiology and senior research scientist at the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communication Sciences

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