Panel discusses state bioterrorism readiness bill

by Courtney Lewis

Though media attention and public concern for anthrax and bioterrorism have dimmed since October, many in the medical community remain aware of its danger.

“You have to accept the eventuality that biological warfare will be used as a weapon again,” said Mike Osterholm, director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Osterholm participated in a Humphrey Center panel discussion Tuesday examining the potential danger of bioterrorism and weighing the nation’s political responses to it.

Though panelists said it poses some ethical problems, most said they thought the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, introduced by the state Legislature on Dec. 21, would be an effective tool in case of biological emergency.

“There are tremendous privacy implications, which makes it a very controversial act,” said Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who was in favor of the act.

The act would give the government access to private records and allow sharing of those records between states. It also contains provisions for rationing medical supplies, quarantines and government seizure of property considered exposed to diseases.

University President Mark Yudof praised the University’s research efforts.

“It’s important that we work on these particular issues before the context arises again,” Yudof said.

Although the panelists brought different perspectives to the discussion, they all agreed bioterrorism is and will continue to be the most serious threat to the United States.

Osterholm said the nation should not have been surprised about bioterror threats.

“We had so much telling us that this would happen, but now I’m afraid that the lesson Sept. 11 has taught us has been lost,” Osterholm said.

Osterholm said he worries about anthrax being introduced into air intake systems of large buildings and skyscrapers. It would only take five tablespoons of anthrax in that system to eliminate 100 floors of people, he said.

Larry Gostin, a professor at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University and principal author of the Minnesota legislation, said smallpox poses the next greatest threat.

In the 20th century, 500 million people died due to smallpox infection, Osterholm said.

Gostin said he is concerned the U.S. Department of Health spends 1 percent of its budget on public health. More than 90 percent goes into technology and advancement, he said.

The act has been derided as a violation of privacy, Gostin said, but it’s necessary to promote the greater good.

Mara Mueller, a fourth-year nursing student who attended the panel discussion, said she didn’t see Osterholm as an alarmist.

“If things get bad enough, we would find this law very helpful,” Mueller said.

Courtney Lewis welcomes comments at [email protected]