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Bio-threat preparedness called lacking

August 14, 2007|From Newsday

washington -- The ability to detect a biological attack quickly or even a naturally occurring outbreak of influenza is years behind schedule because of a lack of leadership by the Homeland Security Department, according to a new audit.

Although President Bush ordered the national surveillance program in 2004 to detect biological threats and ensure a rapid response, the program "is falling short of its objectives," wrote Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

Final plans for the system -- designed to gather information from food, animal, air and water monitoring, as well as public health data -- are still incomplete because the system was shifted repeatedly within the department and was chronically short on staffing, the report found.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said the problems were being addressed and the system would be running by September 2008.

But critics were not mollified. "I find this deeply frustrating," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "All of this was supposed to be fast-tracked. Yet we find ourselves, six years after 9/11, wrestling with basic challenges in terms of information-sharing and interagency coordination."

Experts say that quick identification of a contaminant is key to saving lives. Distributing antibiotics rapidly in an anthrax attack, for instance, could significantly reduce deaths.

"Simply stated, time is of the essence," Dr. Robert Kadlec said in 2005 testimony about real-time surveillance.

He continued: "Lives literally hang in the balance every minute and every hour after a confirmed attack."

Though several government agencies have early warning programs to identify one kind of data -- testing for airborne biological agents in certain metropolitan areas -- "the federal government has had no single system for consolidating and examining bio-surveillance across federal, state and local lines," the report said.

The program's delayed start is under scrutiny by lawmakers. In an Aug. 7 letter, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that the panel was investigating "the adequacy of DHS' current bio-surveillance efforts."

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the letter "disingenuous" and said the department was already addressing the issues identified by Skinner at the time of his investigation.

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