By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 1/29/2004 6:20:56 PM ET 2004-01-29T23:20:56

President Bush’s new budget asks for $274 million to bolster a series of programs aimed at combating the threat of bioterrorism, administration officials said Thursday. 

The funds are outlined in the president’s 2005 fiscal year budget under a program called the Bio-Surveillance Program Initiative. Officials from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services said Thursday the program is designed to “protect the nation against bioterrorism and to strengthen the public health infrastructure.”

Part of the new money will beef up the year-old BioWatch program, an interagency effort among DHS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, said DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. That program has been operating in 30 cities and monitors data collected by more than 4,000 atmospheric sampling stations that act as an early warning system for any airborne pathogens.

The proposal allocates $129 million toward the expansion of the BioWatch program and to create a system that integrates collected surveillance data on an interagency network, Ridge said. Some $135 million would be spent by HHS on increasing laboratory capacity, better human health monitoring and enhancing food surveillance. The Department of Agriculture would get $10 million toward improved food and animal surveillance.

“Better bio-surveillance will mean early detection and improved response to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies,” said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. “It is vital that we detect, monitor and treat any disease outbreak as quickly and efficiently as possible. This initiative will better integrate information to give us the tools we need to protect American families.”

Better, not best
The high visibility and increased spending by the Bush administration to counter potential bioterrorism threats — $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2004 compared with $305 million in fiscal year 2001 — has produced unintended dividends, officials said: increased cooperation and communication among the nation’s health care community. 

“We already have seen our investments pay off in CDC’s leadership in fighting the SARS outbreak last year and through a coordinated public health response to the West Nile Virus,” Thompson said.

This increased threat of bioterrorism in tandem with a rash of public health crises, such as the sudden outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) forced the CDC to revamp how it interacted with state and local health officials, CDC Director Julie Gerberding said in November during a speech at the National Press Club.

But good isn’t great, according to a General Accounting Office study, released in August that looked at the readiness of the nation’s hospitals to respond to a bioterrorism incident.

“While the efforts of public health agencies and health care organizations to increase their preparedness for major public health threats such as influenza pandemics and bioterrorism have improved the nation’s capacity to respond to SARS and other emerging infectious disease outbreaks, gaps in preparedness remain,” said Janet Heinrich, director of Public Health Issues for the GAO in congressional testimony last year.

Specifically, the GAO found “gaps in disease surveillance system and laboratory facilities,” Heinrich said.

The new budget proposal seems aimed at relieving some of the problems highlighted in that GAO report. For example, $11 million is proposed for DHS to develop a “real-time system for harvesting data on the health of our population, animals, plants and food supply.”  And $65 million is proposed to beef up a monitoring system already in place to help deploy the “next generation bio-surveillance warning system,” DHS said.

On the HHS side, $130 million is proposed for the CDC to help improve its own monitoring activities and to “improve linkages between public health laboratories” and to expand the number of public health quarantine stations at U.S. ports of entry from eight to 25.

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