March 30, 2002
If Ann Anderson has the urge to say, "I told you so," she does an admirable job of suppressing it. Two years ago she applied for a Centers for Disease Control grant to fund a bioterrorism-preparedness program for state public health agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. The proposal was approved pending funding.
The problem was it didn't seem like the funding would ever materialize. Then last fall anthrax-tainted letters sent through the U.S. mail killed five people and necessitated the treatment of thousands more with potent antibiotics.
"Now Congress finally understands that developing the public health infrastructure is crucial," said Anderson, acting dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
In February, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced $20 million in new funding for the development of a national system of Centers for Public Health Preparedness. The South Central Center for Public Health Preparedness, which Anderson proposed two years ago, will be part of that system and among the centers receiving funding.
The project will be a collaboration between the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Anderson's co-principal investigator will be Michael Maetz in Birmingham. The two schools already work together on the South Central Public Health Workforce Development Center, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
"The specific target of this center is going to be to train the public health workforce in terrorism preparedness," Anderson said. "We're going to pay attention to risk assessment and risk communication around chemical, biological and nuclear threats."
Tulane's public health school also is working to prepare future public health workers to face the threat of terrorism through a new course offered by the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. The course, Terrorism: A Public Health Challenge, was designed by Assaf Abdelghani, chair of the department, and the department's faculty. It's coordinated by William Hartley, associate professor of environmental health sciences.
Each class meeting features a different lecturer. Abdelghani and Anderson agree that, because of its petrochemical industry, Louisiana is most vulnerable to chemical terrorism, an issue the environmental health sciences department is well prepared to address.
"The focus of the department is chemical exposure through air, water and food, whether direct or indirect," Abdelghani said. "We have a very strong toxicology group in the department."
Abdelghani will talk to the class about the ways in which agriculture can be deliberately contaminated. By bringing in experts from outside the department, the course also addresses biological and nuclear terrorism.
"We're trying to see if, as an educated community, we can start to predict what terrorists will do, what potential tools they can use. It's very difficult to do," he said.
Besides increased awareness of potential threats, Abdelghani says better monitoring and response programs are needed and that hospitals and laboratories need to be prepared for a large-scale emergency. Like Anderson, he believes lack of funding has been a major obstacle to preparedness. Next semester Abdelghani hopes to open the course up to medical students and to undergraduate seniors. He also plans to eventually expand the single course into several courses, developing a training program in terrorism preparedness.
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