States are slowly getting better prepared to handle bioterrorism, but most still don’t have statewide response plans and federal funding is declining, according to a new report.
The report echoed fears voiced by outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson earlier this month, when he said he couldn’t understand why terrorists haven’t attacked the country’s food supply because it would be “so easy to do.”
And the review follows a year in which the country faced a shortage of flu vaccines — normally a routine protection against a known problem.
Compiled by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, the report issued Tuesday found only six states are adequately prepared to distribute vaccines and antidotes in an emergency, but it named only three of them: Florida, Illinois and Louisiana.
“More than three years after 9/11 and the anthrax tragedies, we’ve only made baby steps toward better bioterrorism preparedness, rather than the giant leaps required to adequately protect the American people,” said former three-term Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., now president of Trust for America’s Health.
The report concluded that basic bioterrorism detection, diagnosis and response capabilities are not in place, and the country has a long way to go to protect the American public from such an attack.
One common problem was lack of funding. Federal bioterrorism aid has decreased by about $1 million per state in 2004, and about one-third of the states saw their public health budgets decline.
The report graded states on whether they met 10 criteria, including such elements as the amount of state spending and federal aid allocated to public health, the flu vaccine rates, and the number of scientists and laboratories available to test for anthrax or the plague.
No state met all 10 criteria, and only two — Florida and North Carolina — met nine of the 10. Two states, Massachusetts and Alaska, met only three criteria, and received the worst ranking.
Most states met five or six criteria.
The most significant downfall among the states was the lack of adequate public health labs and laboratory scientists to handle serious outbreaks. The report found only 16 states have enough labs and 21 have enough scientists.
Handling a flu pandemic, especially in light of this year’s shortage of flu vaccines, would be a problem for at least 20 states that have no public response plan in place.
Earlier this fall, U.S. health officials began scrambling for flu vaccine when British authorities shut down vaccine maker Chiron Corp. after finding contamination at a Liverpool plant.
This is the second year in a row that the group has compiled the bioterrorism report card on the states. But changes in the grading make comparisons with last year’s scores difficult.