Unprepared nation turns to Hopkins center

Bioterrorism institute's `readiness' message long went unheeded

October 04, 2001|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

While Dr. Donald A. Henderson, the man who led the worldwide campaign against smallpox, taped an interview yesterday with the BBC and fielded calls from countless newspapers, Dr. Tara O'Toole testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

Reporters, doctors, hospital officials and worried citizens have been calling for days, and the e-mails keep pouring in. Everyone, it seems, is thinking about bioterrorism, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies is a place with answers.

Not so long ago, Henderson, who directs the Baltimore center, and O'Toole, the deputy director, met with glazed expressions when they preached their "readiness" message - the idea that the nation was woefully unprepared to respond to an attack with biological weapons.

When terrorists did the unthinkable on Sept. 11 - slamming airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon - the public began imagining what form of terror might be next.

"People are feeling a sense of urgency," said Henderson, 73, who established the bioterrorism institute in 1999. "They are beginning to realize that maybe what we were talking about may have had some credibility."

In the past few weeks, Henderson has conferred with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and other Bush administration officials.

O'Toole, 50, a doctor who was an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration, has briefed congressional leaders and appeared Monday on an Internet telecast viewed by representatives of 225 mayoral offices.

The two have advised officials on the health effects of smallpox and anthrax, the biological agents believed to pose the greatest threats, and the pressures such attacks would place on a health system that has few available beds or doctors trained to recognize the signs or symptoms.

Dr. Tom Inglesby, a staff scientist who is an infectious disease specialist at Hopkins' medical school, said he has advised hospital officials who are trying to plan for a sudden influx of very sick patients. Part of his role has been to link them with hospitals such as Johns Hopkins that have already drafted plans to meet a crisis.

Inglesby and Dr. Elin Gursky, a senior fellow at the center, have fielded numerous calls from doctors and patients seeking advice on everything from medications to the safety of the drinking water.

"Doctors are asking whether their patients should be getting antibiotics, where the sources of information are," Inglesby said. "People want to know whether the water supply is safe."

To meet the flood of questions, the center hurriedly posted answers to the most frequently asked questions on its Web site: Don't bother buying gas masks or stocking medicine cabinets with antibiotics; the water supply is safe and an unlikely target.

The Hopkins center isn't the only one devoted to the study of bioterrorism. But it is one of the few made up predominantly of doctors and public health scientists rather than experts in arms control and political science.

Henderson planned it this way because he felt the nation's biggest challenge in the event of a biological attack would be to muster the medications, vaccines and even the hospital beds needed to treat the sick and stem an epidemic.

Henderson, who goes by "D.A.," will forever be known for his role in leading the World Health Organization's successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. The 11-year campaign, which ended in 1977 when the last case was identified in Somalia, represents the only time a major disease was eliminated from the globe.

In the mid-1990s, Henderson turned his attention to bioterrorism when he became convinced that Iraq had a sophisticated bioweapons program and learned that the former Soviet Union had produced tons of smallpox virus during the Cold War.

If anything, the Sept. 11 attacks left him more concerned than ever about bioterrorism because of the money and sophistication shown by the perpetrators.

"We know they have no compunctions at all morally about doing anything," Henderson said. "Also, we know that there are very sophisticated people engaged in this enterprise - people with a substantial amount of education, engaged in a great deal of planning, able to design and time an episode that was unthinkable."

For now, he says, the nation is unprepared to deal with a large-scale attack with a biological agent. In the past decade, hospitals have closed down thousands of beds to save money - leaving little capacity to deal with a sudden influx of patients. Few doctors have seen smallpox or anthrax or would recognize the symptoms if they saw an infected patient, he said. And public health departments have had little experience responding to major epidemics of any sort.

Though he's encouraged by the surge of interest on Capitol Hill and in the nation more broadly, Henderson says the nation's resolve will be tested over the long term.

"You can't do this overnight," he said. "It's going to take a sustained set of activities. The question is: Are people six months from now going to be as interested? Is Congress going to be as interested?

"People tend to have a spasm of interest followed not by total amnesia but something bordering on it," he said. "I'm hoping this does not occur."

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