Preparing for and Preventing Bioterrorism

Perspectives

MARGARET A. HAMBURG

Preparing for and Preventing Bioterrorism

Strengthening the U.S. public health infrastructure is the key to enhancing the nation’s safety.

The tragic events of September 11th, followed by the recent anthrax incidents, have made us painfully aware of our nation’s vulnerability to terrorism, including bioterrorism. Although once considered a remote concern, the possibility that a biological agent might be intentionally used to cause widespread panic, disease, and death is now a common concern. Whether the event involves an unsophisticated delivery system with a limited number of true cases, as we have seen with the current anthrax scare, or a carefully orchestrated attack with mass casualties, the prospects are frightening. As the United States mobilizes to address an array of overlapping foreign policy, infectious disease, and national security threats, it must make sure that a comprehensive program to counter and prevent bioterrorism ranks high on the priority list.

The threat of bioterrorism is fundamentally different from other threats we face, such as conventional explosives or even a chemical or nuclear weapon. By its very nature, the bioweapons threat, with its close links to naturally occurring infectious agents and disease, requires a different strategy. Meaningful progress against this threat depends on understanding it in the context of epidemic disease. It requires different investments and different partners. Without this recognition, the nation’s preparedness programs will be inadequate, and we may miss critical opportunities to prevent such an attack from occurring in the first place.