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A little progress since attacks, but U.S. must build its defense system from almost scratch

September 11, 2002|Vicki Kemper

"Bioterrorism does not respect geographic boundaries," says Mary Selecky, secretary of the Washington state Department of Health. "We are either all protected, or we are all at risk."

Then we are all still at risk.

Preparing for biochemical attacks nationwide means building a whole new defensive network, the equivalent to creating all of today's police and fire departments and some emergency rooms. The U.S. is fractionally better off than a year ago, but no more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now runs an interactive computer network linking it with about 2,000 local health agencies and medical associations. The network is geared to help spot and respond to outbreaks of disease quickly.

As a result of last fall's anthrax attacks, mail addressed to federal offices is irradiated. For the rest, the Postal Service is testing equipment capable of detecting and neutralizing a wide range of biochemical toxins. It could be operating systemwide in just over a year if all goes well.

Smallpox is another source of worry. Its fatality rate is 30% for those who aren't vaccinated. After a crash effort over the last year, the government has doubled its supply of vaccine to 110 million doses and is aiming for 250 million doses by year's end.

But that would still be 38 million short of the national population. Officials are still pondering not only who would administer the vaccine but also who would receive it.

When they do decide about smallpox, they will still have to worry about the likes of botulism, plague, tularemia and Ebola, chemical agents such as sarin and mustard gas and radioactive waste--not to mention anthrax.

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