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Spring 2002
Confronting the terror within

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Among the hubs of expertise on campus is the 5-year-old Center for Public Health and Disasters, which promotes interdisciplinary efforts to reduce the health impacts of natural and man-made disasters.

The center was already providing consultations and educating public-health graduate students in bioterrorism, but those efforts were turned up several notches after the events of the fall. A bioterrorism training program for emergency and primary-care physicians was put on the center's Web site, With funding from Sacramento, the center will soon begin to offer two-day workshops on bioterrorism preparedness for leaders of the state's local health departments.

"This issue has ratcheted up at a time when the health-care system is already overtaxed," says Steven Rottman, the center's director. "How long can you sustain a surge capacity before your personnel and your facilities become overwhelmed? We're trying to help these public-health leaders to prioritize."

Like many of the others interviewed for this story, Rottman's own life has become considerably busier since September 11. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, his group was flooded with media calls asking about everything from the likelihood of survivors to public-health risks from contamination of the surrounding areas, along with what-if scenarios as future terrorist threats were pondered. The initial wave had barely subsided when the anthrax issue emerged, prompting a new round of interviews. That's to say nothing of the increased demands for education and training that Rottman's group is helping to meet.

"We're running as fast as we can," he says. In February, his unit was designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a federal center for public-health preparedness and will receive funding to recruit additional experts in natural and human-generated disasters.

Rottman has not been alone in thinking about the response to a chemical or biological attack. The U.S. government started viewing bioterrorism as a serious threat after Iraq's increased bioweapons activity following the Persian Gulf War, Rottman notes. In the years since the war, the government has established a system in which "push packs" of vaccines, antibiotics and other equipment could be deployed into a metropolitan area within hours after an attack.

"Five years ago, a lot of people said this was totally paranoid and that it could never happen," Rottman says. "Today, many of those same people are stockpiling Cipro in their closets."


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