Sign in to comment!

Menu
Home

Smallpox Fighter Heads Up U.S. Bioterror Defense Team

The man chosen to head the nation's multibillion-dollar campaign against a bioterror attack is a 73-year-old public health icon who led the effort to eradicate smallpox from the world.

"It's amazing what can be done when you really apply yourself," says Donald A. Henderson -- known to all as D.A. -- nonchalantly applying the lesson so many parents have given their children to wiping out a disease.

After the smallpox campaign, Henderson took up a post in academia, eventually creating a center on bioterrorism at Johns Hopkins University. He spent much of his time pushing the importance of preparing for a bioterrorist attack to a skeptical audience, both inside and outside government.

After Sept. 11, he figured a bioterrorist assault could be next. That Sunday, he got a call from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who invited him to Washington that evening to begin preparing.

Two months later, the nation was in the grip of the anthrax-by-mail attack, and Henderson was director of the newly created Office of Public Health Preparedness at HHS.

It proved considerably more stressful than academia. During the anthrax crisis, Henderson said a late-night phone ring would put him on edge, worrying that there was another case.

Wary of having a nice title but no real power in a department with dozens of competing agencies, Henderson insisted on being given the authority to make decisions and direct spending.

Now he's trying to do just that.

"We cannot, in the period of one year with just a dollop of money, suddenly have a good public health system," Henderson, 73, said in an interview Wednesday. "It isn't a matter of just buying an extra aircraft carrier. You've got to develop this over time."

His credentials clearly help him on his new path. At a House Commerce Committee hearing last year, he was greeted as "a real American hero," as members of the committee gave him an unheard-of standing ovation.

Congress already has set aside $2.9 billion for bioterrorism preparation, with much of that to buy smallpox vaccine and stockpile antibiotics. President Bush plans to ask for hundreds of millions more in his budget plan for next year, and the administration is focusing on the hard work of preparation at the state and local level.

It's part of the administration's overall homeland security plan. Bush is expected to request nearly double the current $13 billion for 2003.

In the interview, Henderson gave an overview of the department's plans, to be detailed in the days ahead. Among the priorities:

--Create a half dozen new regional laboratories. There are 81 labs around the country that handle identification of commonly seen bacteria, but they are not specialized and don't have much experience working with potential bioterrorist material. Two national labs handle the most dangerous substances, but they are too busy to handle every suspicious threat.

--Help cities develop plans for vaccinating and distributing antibiotics to large numbers of people. The federal government is purchasing enough drugs to treat people who may be exposed to hazardous agents. But cities must designate treatment centers and figure out how to transport the supplies from the airport to the centers.

--Develop round-the-clock reporting systems between hospital emergency rooms and state health departments. Local doctors must have experts to check with when they see patients with unusual symptoms, which could be the first sign of a bioterrorist attack, but often the health department is only staffed during business hours.

--Help hospitals better prepare. Already stretched financially, hospitals are woefully unprepared should a bioterrorist attack require a place to isolate a large number of contagious patients, Henderson said.

--Develop better public information. For instance, fact sheets about the five biological agents that pose the greatest threat should be ready to go in the case of a crisis.

Part of the challenge, Henderson said, will be prodding states to use the money to actually prepare for bioterrorism, which has to compete for attention with more immediate concerns. It can be done, he said, noting that he had to persuade 50 countries to cooperate with the smallpox eradication effort, which he ran from 1966 to 1977 for the World Health Organization.