Public Health Response to Anthrax Incidents of 2001

GAO-04-152: Published: Oct 15, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 2003.

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In the fall of 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media personnel and congressional officials, leading to the first cases of anthrax infection related to an intentional release of anthrax in the United States. Outbreaks of anthrax infection were concentrated in six locations, or epicenters, in the country. An examination of the public health response to the anthrax incidents provides an important opportunity to apply lessons learned from that experience to enhance the nation's preparedness for bioterrorism. Because of its interest in bioterrorism preparedness, Congress asked GAO to review the public health response to the anthrax incidents. Specifically, GAO determined (1) what was learned from the experience that could help improve public health preparedness at the local and state levels and (2) what was learned that could help improve public health preparedness at the federal level and what steps have been taken to make those improvements.

Local and state public health officials in the epicenters of the anthrax incidents identified strengths in their responses as well as areas for improvement. These officials said that although their preexisting planning efforts, exercises, and previous experience in responding to emergencies had helped promote a rapid and coordinated response, problems arose because they had not fully anticipated the extent of coordination needed among responders and they did not have all the necessary agreements in place to put the plans into operation rapidly. Officials also reported that communication among response agencies was generally effective but public health officials had difficulty reaching clinicians to provide them with guidance. In addition, local and state officials reported that the capacity of the public health workforce and clinical laboratories was strained and that their responses would have been difficult to sustain if the incidents had been more extensive. Officials identified three general lessons for public health preparedness: the benefits of planning and experience; the importance of effective communication, both among responders and with the general public; and the importance of a strong public health infrastructure to serve as the foundation for responses to bioterrorism or other public health emergencies. The experience of responding to the anthrax incidents showed aspects of federal preparedness that could be improved. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was challenged to both meet heavy resource demands from local and state officials and coordinate the federal public health response in the face of the rapidly unfolding incidents. CDC has said that it was effective in its more traditional capacity of supporting local response efforts but was not fully prepared to manage the federal public health response. CDC experienced difficulty in managing the voluminous amount of information coming into the agency and in communicating with public health officials, the media, and the public. In addition to straining CDC's resources, the anthrax incidents highlighted both shortcomings in the clinical tools available for responding to anthrax, such as vaccines and drugs, and a lack of training for clinicians in how to recognize and respond to anthrax. CDC has taken steps to implement some improvements. These include creating the Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response within the Office of the Director, creating an emergency operations center, enhancing the agency's communication infrastructure, and developing databases of information and expertise on the biological agents considered likely to be used in a terrorist attack. CDC has also been working with other federal agencies and private organizations to develop better clinical tools and increase training for medical care professionals.

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