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The international SARS outbreak has taught publichealth officials invaluable lessons. Joseph Henderson, associate director for terrorism preparedness and response with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told an audience at Harvard June 10 that authorities learned they could quickly and effectively ramp up to provide sufficient support to state and local agencies working on the front lines. Henderson spoke during a one-day conference on bioterrorism preparedness hosted by the Kennedy School of Government.
Henderson praised the CDC’s new Emergency Operations Center, opened earlier this year, for providing the critical institutional backbone necessary to carry out the agency’s mission during the recent outbreak. "We can get the information out very rapidly in order to support state and local health officials," he said. "SARS taught us that."
Federal health authorities have made significant strides since September 11, 2001 in tracking and responding to bioterror attacks, according to Henderson, but he insisted that many serious challenges remain. "Now that the war (with Iraq) is behind us, there is a sense of complacency and I’m concerned about that complacency," he said. "There will come a time when (the terrorists) see that our complacency is making us vulnerable."
How best to track unfolding public health emergencies was the focus of a conference panel session. Epidemiologist Ross Lazarus, visiting associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, outlined a new national demonstration project allowing doctors to detect infectious disease outbreaks before they become epidemics. Ronald Hoffeld with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory described his unique proposal to backtrack an infectious disease outbreak to isolate the time and place of onset.
Quarantine is often the desired response to a major public health crisis, but the decision to impose such a drastic step can be especially troublesome. Anita Barry, who deals with communicable diseases, with the Boston Public Health Commission, remarked during a morning session that voluntary cooperation is preferred because enforcement can be a problem. Legal issues can also be sticky, Barry said, but James Bromberg with the Harvard School of Public Health told the panel that "the government always gets the benefit of the doubt in emergency situations."
Other panel sessions focused on disaster medicine, bioterrorism agents, smallpox, biosensing technology applications, biodefense strategies and risk communications. The conference was co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness (ESDP); the Center for Public Health Preparedness, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH); and the Lincoln Laboratory and Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Photo: by Doug Gavel